Gabriel and Holly
The first day was the most daunting.
It helped that she’d arrived last night to settle herself in the cottage annex before first contact this morning.
Still, nerves attacked her as she stood before the door of the imposing but charming ivy-covered sixteenth century manor named Hug Cottage.
You won’t receive a warm reception.
Holly snorted under her breath. In her profession, she’d run the gamut from scathing scepticism to outright laughter. And yet, her success rate was one hundred percent.
Swallowing her nerves, the rapped firmly with the brass knocker.
The tread of heavy boots on hardwood floors made her stomach tighten. Then somersault as the door swung open to reveal a very tall, very irate, very gorgeous-looking man.
Dark wavy hair worn long tumbled into ocean-blue eyes, but his sharp nose and almost cruel mouth negated that boyish long hair. Together with his broad shoulders and impressive, well-toned body, he was all-man.
For a few vital seconds, the power of his presence dried up her words.
“What do you want?” he barked.
Holly wrestled her focus back and stretched out her hand. “You must be Gabriel Caprioli. I’m Holly Trenton. I’m staying at the annex for the next few weeks.”
Dark eyebrows furrowed as if the concept of exchanging greetings were alien to him. “Yes. And?”
Here comes the fun part. “Your sister, Adriana, hired me to…meet with you.”
“She did what?” he breathed. Any moment, she expected frost to appear despite the unseasonably warm spring day.
He reached for the door, probably to close it, and she saw paint streaks on his fingers. Recalled he was a famous English-Italian painter.
“I’m sorry if I came at a bad time. Is there a time more convenient to you?”
“No. Goodbye, Miss Trenton.”
The door started to close. She stepped up into the doorway. “Sorry but I wasn’t quite finished.”
Mockery arrived then in the form of wry twisted lips. Lips she found far too sensual.
“Really? Is this where you ask for the clichéd cup of sugar?”
“You’re very cynical, aren’t you?”
“Not at all. I’m just a very busy man.”
She smiled, knowing she needed to take the high road before this went any further. “I’m here for you, Mr Caprioli. Before you send me away, know that I’ll simply return this afternoon. Tomorrow. And the day after.”
His face underwent a transformation. As if he couldn’t believe her gall. Was even impressed?
Pleasure weaved through her.
“Whatever she’s paying you, I’ll triple it if you go away,” he rasped.
Her smile widened. “Now who’s the cliché? You’ve no idea how many times I’ve heard that.”
“I’m more interested in how many times you’ve accepted the offer.”
“Never,” she said, gentling her voice because this was where compassion led the way. Because his brusqueness aside, shadows lurked in his eyes, misery and grief locked tight inside him.
She’d felt the same when her beloved father passed. Grief-stricken, alone, resentful and miserable. Until she’d found therapy.
Gabriel pulled his phone from his pocket and dialled. A torrent of Italian followed. When he hung up abruptly, he shot her a seething look.
“Adriana told you.”
“That you lost your fiancé last year? Yes.”
“And you …what is it you call yourself?”
She took a deep breath. “I’m a Hug Therapist.”
To his credit, he didn’t laugh. “You think you I’m broken? That you can fix me?”
“You’ve shut yourself off from your family and friends for the better part of a year. That’s not healthy, Mr Caprioli. I’m just here to help.”
He chuckled bitterly. “Since you know me so well, you should call me Gabriel.”
She ignored the sarcasm. “Thank you, Gabriel. Can I come in?”
His jaw tightened. Pivoting, he headed down the hallway.
Holly followed, passing tastefully decorated rooms and into a large, bright country style kitchen that reeked of understated wealth.
Coffee?” he offered abruptly.
Nerves—worsened by his enigmatic presence—made her want to refuse. But she needed the connection. “Thanks. Cream and sugar.”
He poured her a cup, then pinned her with his gaze. “How does this work?”
“We can talk—”
“No,” he interjected coldly.
“Or I can simply sit with you. But at some point we need to have contact.”
He stiffened, his eyes derisively raking over her, taking in her dark gold corkscrew curls, pert nose and lips she believed were too wide. His gaze trailed over her café-au-lait skin, a product of her mixed race heritage before meeting her tawny eyes. “My sister may label me a recluse, but I’m not desperate, Miss Trenton.”
“Holly,” she invited while she battled the curious heat invading her system. “And it’s not that kind of thing. Just be…present. I can teach you some breathing exercises. But at some point you allow me to hold your hand.”
One eyebrow rose. “And how long do I endure this?”
“Normally it’s an hour but we can take it slow.”
“Because I’m so fragile?” he mocked.
“Because it takes getting used to.”
He appeared momentarily nonplussed. Then, rounding the kitchen island, he stopped before her, invading her senses with his unique, sandalwood scent. “You have until I finish my coffee, then I want you gone, Holly Trenton. Until then, touch away.”
His asperity aside, it was more than she’d hoped for. Slowly, she held out her hand.
He presented his.
Holly took it in both of hers, pressed her warmth into his flesh. Watched the moment the connection registered. His eyes widened fractionally, his breathing a little shallow. Then, the drawn out exhale.
She knew he was recalling the last time he’d been touched like this. How he’d yearned for a connection without realising it.
Emotion sparkled in his blue eyes.
Need. Hunger. Not carnal, just a craving. Perhaps an acknowledgment that he was human; wasn’t alone after all.
His gaze dropped to their joined hands. Shocked flared in his eyes. Abruptly, he jerked away. “Enough. See yourself out.”
Perhaps she imagined his gruffer voice. But she couldn’t dismiss the electricity humming through her body as she left Hug Cottage.
At noon the next day, Holly returned.
Despite telling herself what to expect, a hundred butterflies took flight in her belly the moment he opened the door.
Expecting to return to the kitchen, she paused, surprised when he headed for the stairs. “You interrupted my work. You can either come up or leave.”
She went up. Into his attic studio where paintings stood in various stages of progress. He was in the middle of wrapping a finished painting of a breathtaking storm-tossed coastal landscape.
Done, he set the painting by the door. When he came towards her, her heart raced, her skin warming.
“Go on, do your thing.”
“Would you like to talk first?”
Something resembling guilt flickered in his eyes. “No.”
She nodded, held out her hand. To her surprise, he presented both of his.
Their hands met, palm to palm. Again she felt his shock, then his hunger. When her hands tightened, he didn’t pull away.
“You can close your eyes if you want,” she said.
A faint smile softened his sensual lips. “I’d rather keep my eyes on you, Holly.”
Her name on his lips caused another flutter in her stomach. “Okay.”
She held his gaze, watched emotions shift through his eyes.
His retreat was slower than yesterday, but inexorable.
“I’ll see you tomorrow?”
His lips tightened but he nodded.
Three weeks later…
They stood at the living room window, Holly’s arms wrapped around his waist.
“I struggle to remember her face sometimes.” His voice was low. Bleak
Cheek pressed into his back, she replied, “It happens. I woke up one morning six months after Dad died and couldn’t remember his voice. But I know that doesn’t mean I cared for him any less. The mind is a complicated thing. Sometimes we just need to rely on our hearts.”
She started to move away. His grip tightened on her hands. “I don’t think my hour is up yet.”
That fluttery feeling in her stomach moved, lodging precariously close to her heart. But she smiled. They’d made huge progress in three weeks.
Adriana’s ecstatic call to say Gabriel had reached out to their family was another huge success. And an hour ago, a courier had departed for London with Gabriel’s paintings for his impending sold-out exhibit.
Her work here was almost done.
“I shouldn’t feel this way,” he rasped.
“What? Grateful to be alive? Reaching out to those you love?”
“Yes. Not when I couldn’t save her.”
“But you tried. Would she have wanted this for you?”
A long silence. Then, “No.”
“What would she have wanted?”
He turned in her arms, his eyes boring into her skin as if deciphering her every secret. “Take a walk with me?”
Sensing his urgency, she nodded.
They walked hand in hand without speaking. Not until they were at Hug Bridge, the centuries old stone bridge that connected Hug Cottage to the charming little village half a mile away.
“You probably get this a lot but I didn’t know how much I needed you until you arrived.”
Holly’s heart squeezed with sadness and gratitude. Because her feelings for Gabriel were increasingly complicated. “I’m glad.”
“But I don’t need you as my therapist any longer.”
A boulder lodged in her stomach. “I understand. My bags are packed. I’ll be gone by this afternoon.”
“No!” He grabbed her hands. “I don’t want you to leave! I want you here. I’m buying the cottage from Adriana. I want to live here with you, Holly. I want to walk over Hug Bridge with you. Enjoy summer evenings, watching the sunset over this river, and the winter basking in our very own winter wonderland. Say yes.”
Her heart soared. “Yes.”
Emotion filled his eyes as he lowered his head and kissed her. With a moan, she threw her arms around his neck, finally giving in to the sensations coursing through her.
When they parted, he cupped her face in his hands. “I think I'm falling in love with you, Holly.”
Tears filled her eyes, the notion of loving him forever, overwhelming her. “Oh Gabriel. I think I could fall in love with you, too.”
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