Authors: Melody Grace
I hug my arms around myself, caught up in the performance—and
my memory of those hands on my own body, hip to hip, skin on skin.
Finally, the music ends, and applause comes crashing back into my
“Easy, girl.” Karla laughs, patting me on the head.
“You’re practically drooling.”
I wipe the smile off my face, terrified my feelings will be obvious
for anyone to see.
Karla laughs again. “Now you look like you want to drown in the
fountain. Relax,” she tells me, “just play it cool,
and—hey!” she exclaims, looking behind me. “Great
I spin around. It’s Raphael, his hair slightly damp with sweat,
curling darkly over his tanned face.
“You came,” he says quietly, giving me another smile.
This one sends a bolt of heat straight through me.
My skin prickles, like I’ve been shocked. The effect is
instant. Hot. Hard.
“Sure,” I try to play nonchalant like Karla said. “We
were in the neighborhood, so we figured we’d come check you
out. It out,” I correct myself quickly. “The show, I
Way to go, Annalise. Real cool!
Raphael’s gaze goes to my friends. “We haven’t been
introduced,” he says, flashing a charming grin. “At
least, not properly. You were in a rush last time,” he adds, to
Karla. “Raphael Gibraldi.”
“Oh, sorry!” I yelp. “This is Karla, and Rosalie.
They’re at the company with me.”
“A pleasure.” Raphael’s gaze turns back to me, like
I’m the only person in the world. “Are you free now?”
He rests a hand gently on my arm. His touch sears through me. I catch
I feel a shove against my back, and I stumble, off balance, towards
Raphael. Karla beams at him. “Just have her back before
dinner.” She looks down and does a double take at the time.
“Look at that!” she cries. “We have to get going,
don’t we, Ros?”
“What? Oh, yes.” Rosalie nods enthusiastically. “We
have to go see a guy, about a thing!”
“See you later!” Karla cries, and then the two of them
are gone, giggling together as they dash away across the square.
I brace myself and turn back to Raphael. His eyes blaze into me. My
heart catches in my throat.
Dear God, he’s mesmerizing.
“So…” I blush, awkward. “What do you want to
His mouth curls in a smoldering grin. He quirks his eyebrow. “What
do you think?”
“I, um,” I stutter, my mind
blank. All I can think about his is lips, his hands, his body…
“Let’s take a walk.” Raphael puts me out of my
misery, looking amused. “I love this neighborhood, there are so
many old churches and monuments.”
Strolling. OK, that I can do.
“Great!” I exclaim, too loud. “I mean, lead on.”
But as I
hitch my purse up my shoulder, Raphael leans in. His lips rasp
against my earlobe, his breath is hot against my skin.
“But trust me,
. Your next lesson will be soon.”
I fall into step beside Raphael as we stroll to the edge of the
. This is where we first met, I remember, when he chased
the pickpocket down into these alleyways.
It feels like weeks have passed, but it’s been only days.
“It’s like everywhere I look, it’s from a painting
or postcard,” I babble nervously as Raphael turns down one of
the winding narrow streets. The walls of the buildings are a faded
rosy terra cotta, and many of the doorways have ornate arches, or
vibrant window-boxes vying for attention.
Raphael smiles. “When I first moved here, I would take my
camera everywhere. I took so many photographs, just of the buildings,
the people ... All the history.”
“There’s a lot of history,” I agree with a wry
smile. “And we saw about a thousand years’ worth on our
“Ah, you’ve been to all the tourist sites then.”
Raphael laughs. “They’re great, but you also need to see
the real Rome, away from all the activity. Like, here, for example.”
He nods to a bench down the street, where three old Italian women are
sitting, chatting. Their wrinkled faces are lit up and animated, and
they laugh loudly as we pass. “I bet those women have been
meeting there to gossip every week for forty years.” Raphael
grins, glancing back.
“Complaining about their husbands,” I laugh in agreement.
“And how their kids don’t call as often as they should.”
I begin to relax, his footsteps steady beside me.
I reassure myself, taking a deep breath.
pretend he’s a friend.
A six-foot, ripped, gorgeous friend, who a few hours ago had me
moaning up against a wall with my shirt around my waist.
My cheeks burn hot at the memory. God, it felt so good.
I sneak a look at him, the strong line of his jaw, the tousled dark
hair just begging to be touched.
I want more. I want to know everything about him.
“So what brought you to Rome?” I ask. “You said you
moved here a few years ago?”
Raphael nods. “When I was eighteen. I was supposed to go to
college,” he continues. “Study to be a lawyer. My parents
...” He hesitates, giving me a sideways glance. “They
don’t understand, about my dance. They never did.”
“That’s tough.” I sympathize.
“I was expected to graduate, and get a good job,” Raphael
tells me. “Something respectable. Not make a fool of myself in
the streets like a common beggar.” His voice twists, and I know
those words aren’t his own.
I reach out and touch him gently on the arm. “I’m sorry,”
I say softly.
He seems to snap out of it, and smiles again, banishing the brief
darkness from his eyes. “But I had to dance, there was no other
way for me.” He shrugs. “So, I left home and moved here
instead. I took whatever work I could find, bartending, labor, and
spent my free time dancing, learning everything I could.”
“That’s amazing,” I say, imagining the courage it
would take to leave his family behind and strike out on his own like
that. “I could never be so brave.”
“No?” Raphael looks puzzled. “But here you are, an
ocean away from home, pursuing your passion.”
“It’s not like you,” I shrug. “I’m here
with the company, everything is arranged for us.”
Raphael gives me a look, like he knows something I don’t. “You
shouldn’t put yourself down, Annalise,” he tells me.
“You’re stronger than you think.”
The moment stretches, and the intensity in his gaze shocks me right
to my core. My head spins. How does it feel like I’ve known him
forever, when it’s been no time at all?
His stare turns smoldering. I look away, and quickly change the
subject. “Where are we right now? I don’t recognize any
of these streets.”
“This is the Pantheon district.” Raphael switches into
tour-guide mode, pointing out the ancient details on the buildings,
and little cafes crammed between older squares. “Home to many
ancient churches, many great restaurants, and a special surprise for
“What?” I turn, self-conscious.
“Just up here.” Raphael points to a striped awning on one
of the shops. There’s a line snaking outside the door, and
people emerging with cones of ice cream.
“Oh.” I stop dead, my heart falling.
Raphael grins, not noticing my reaction. “I told you, Italian
gelato has to be tasted to be believed. This is one of the best
places in the city.”
“Sure. That sounds... great,” I murmur, lying. He seems
so enthusiastic, I can’t tell him that gelato is most
definitely not on my diet list.
I panic, mentally counting the calories that must be packed into one
tiny scoop of the treat. It’s probably more than my whole daily
He walks on ahead, so I follow him to take our place in the line, my
mind racing for an excuse. I should have told him something the very
first time he mentioned it—that I was allergic, or
lactose-intolerant. Anything to avoid the truth.
“When I found this place, I came every day for a week to try
their flavors.” Raphael confides. He leans his arm against the
wall beside my head, propped just inches away from me. I breathe in
the clean, fresh scent of him and try to stay calm. I’ll
explain about my diet, about the training. He’ll understand.
Or he’ll think you’re crazy, and run like hell in the
“Are you OK?” Raphael looks down at me with concern. “You
look kind of pale.”
“No!” I yelp. “Fine. I mean, I feel great.”
We reach the front of the line. The freezer cabinets are
glass-fronted, filled with delicious cartons of a rainbow of flavors.
They look amazing, and just the scent is enough to make my mouth
water—and the hairs on the back of my neck prickle in a cold,
“She’ll get the hazelnut,” Raphael tells the
assistant, once we make it inside the tiny store. “And the
pistachio, too.” He turns to me. “They’re the
“Uh huh.” I can feel my throat constrict, but I try to
stay calm. It’s crazy, I know, freaking out over one tiny ice
cream, but I can’t help it. I’ve spent years counting
every precious morsel I allow between my lips, calculating calories
and fat units, knowing that the slightest slip-up will edge me
further and further away from my goal weight.
Raphael pays, and we stroll outside. Across the street is a tiny
park. Raphael takes me to a bench, and we sit. “For you.”
He presents my gelato to me with a funny little bow. It’s huge:
a towering cone, with two massive scoops on top.
I gulp. I can only imagine what my mom would say if she saw me eating
this, or even Mademoiselle.
But even so, I feel a prickle of rebellion. God, how long has it even
been since I tasted ice cream? Real ice cream, not that fat-free,
taste-free frozen yogurt we keep in the freezer at home for a treat.
Years. It’s got to be years.
“I...” I open my mouth to tell him everything, but at
that moment, a drip of gelato melts down the cone and rolls down onto
my wrist. Without thinking, I lift my hand to my mouth to lick it
I stop dead, feeling the cool sensation slide down my throat, tasting
the dense, nutty sweetness of the hazelnut, rich and delicious, an
explosion of pleasure on my tongue. I take another lick and moan out
loud. “God, this is so good!”
I devour the gelato, savoring the sweetness and creamy cool. When I
finish, I look up. Raphael is watching me hungrily – an
expression that has nothing to do with food.
I freeze, blood suddenly pounding in my ears.
Slowly, he reaches over, and wipes a smear from the corner of my
lips. He takes his thumb back to his mouth and sucks, his eyes never
Liquid heat rushes through me, pooling tight between my thighs.
Oh my God.
Still holding my gaze, Raphael scoops a smear of chocolate from his
cone and holds his finger out to me. “Taste,” he orders
My stomach turns a slow somersault. I can’t look away, totally
caught in his hot, fevered gaze as I close my lips around his finger
It’s the most erotic moment of my life. We’re in the
middle of the park, in broad daylight, fully-clothed, but somehow I
feel like we’re naked as I slowly lick my tongue against the
rough skin of his finger, sucking every taste of velvety chocolate
Raphael makes a noise that’s partway between a low groan and a
It makes the ache in my core clench and tighten. To know he feels
this too, that he’s just as affected by our crazy chemistry as
“I want to know how you taste,” he tells me, his eyes
flashing. He slides his finger out of my mouth, and leans in closer.
“I will drink you up,
, every drop.”
His mouth closes over mine as I realize what he means.
It’s too late to exclaim, his lips claiming mine. He caresses
my cheek with his hand and slides his tongue deep into my mouth.
I shiver, melting against him. His lips move masterfully over mine. I
fall into the kiss, tasting the chocolate sweetness, feeling his
Heat and sensation. Desire and need.
Raphael draws back. “Delicious,” he murmurs, with a
tempting smile. “I’ll save the rest for later.”
I’m blushing hotly when I leap up to put my paper wrappers in
the trash. I need a moment to recover from the kiss – and his
I clear my throat. “So you were right about the gelato, it’s
Raphael smiles. “I have a passion for food,” he admits.
“Luca’s family owns a restaurant, so it’s in his
blood. We both work shifts there, sometimes. You should taste his
Nona’s cooking.” He brings his fingertips together and
kisses them, a funny gesture of delight. “Her pasta ... and her
gnocchi! It’s a traditional Italian dish,” he adds,
“That sounds great,” I say wistfully, thinking of an
alternate reality where I can actually eat that stuff.
“I could take you now.” Raphael meets my eyes with a
question. “If you’d like.”
I swallow. Something tells me it’s not just the dinner date
he’s asking me about.
Suddenly, panic crashes through me. Am I ready for this? What am I
I have my audition tomorrow. I should be back practicing right now,
not walking the streets of Rome, having X-rated thoughts about a
“Maybe some other time,” I blurt awkwardly. “I
should really get back.”
“Oh.” Raphael’s face changes, smoothing into a
polite mask. “Of course. I can walk you back,” he adds.
“We’re not far from your dorms.” He stands up, and
stiffly gestures to the left.
My heart drops. I’ve screwed it up now, I know I have.
We walk in silence. My mind is racing, desperately trying to think of
a way to explain. How do I tell him that I want this too, but we’re
moving way to fast?