Released July 2012
I have spent every summer since I was ten years old with my father in London. Every summer, since I was ten years old, has been uneventful and boring.
Until this year.
And this year, after a freak volcanic eruption strands me far from home, I have learned these things:
1. I can make do with one outfit for three days before I buy new clothes.
2. If I hear the phrase, “You’re not in Kansas anymore, Toto,” even one more time, I might become a homicidal maniac.
3. I am horribly and embarrassingly allergic to jellyfish.
4. I am in love with Dante Giliberti, who just happens to be the beautiful, sophisticated son of the Prime Minister of a Mediterranean paradise.
5. See number four above. Because it brings with it a whole slew of problems and I’ve learned something from every one of them.
Let’s start with the fact that Dante’s world is five light-years away from mine. He goes to black-tie functions and knows the Prime Minister of England on a first name basis. I was born and raised on a farm in Kansas and wear cut-off jeans paired with cowboy boots. See the difference?
But hearts don’t care about differences. Hearts want what they want. And mine just wants to be Dante’s girl.
My heart just might be crazy.
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Dante’s Girl by Courtney Cole
It is impossible to look hot in the dingy fluorescent light of an airport bathroom. Or as my best friend Becca would say, hawt.
At this particular moment, I’m not hot or hawt. I make this revelation as I vigorously scrub at my arms and face and then use a wet paper towel under my pits.
And what is it about peeing in an airport toilet ten times in a day that makes you feel so completely scummy? I glance around at the crumpled tissues strewn about on the scuffed floor and the dirty toilets peeking from behind half-closed doors and cringe. That answer is clearly ‘because of the germs’. Ack.
Trying not to think about it, I clean up the best I can. After running a brush through my hair, I stick a piece of gum in my mouth, apply a thin layer of lip gloss and call it good. I glance into the mirror and cringe. It isn’t good enough, but it will have to do. Very soon, I’ll put this dreadful four hour layover in Amsterdam behind me and before I even know it, I’ll be in London.
With my father.
For the summer.
It would be torture.
Just shoot me now.
And it’s not because I don’t love him, because I do. My reluctance doesn’t stem from lack of love. It comes from the deep-seeded fact that Alexander Ellis doesn’t understand me. He never has and he never will. It’s something that I’ve made my peace with and I’m not angry about it.
I’m his only child and he works his life away as some top-secret agent for the NSA. His job is so secret that I don’t even know what he does. In my head, I imagine him jumping from helicopters and saving starving children in war torn areas. But in reality, I know he probably sits behind a desk and analyzes information from a satellite stream or a taped telephone conversation. I’m pretty sure that’s what the NSA does, anyway. They aren’t the cool kind of spies.
Also, he isn’t exactly sure what to do with a daughter. I was supposed to have been a boy. Seventeen years ago, sonograms apparently weren’t as absolute as they are today, because the technician told my parents that she was 99.9% sure that I was a boy. They painted my nursery blue and picked out my name and everything. I can only imagine the shocked horror on my father’s face when I was born with lady parts.
Regardless, I know he loves me. Even though he had willingly given my mother full custody when they divorced years ago, I know he only did it because he works overseas so much and he isn’t exactly sure how to raise a girl. He does okay. But then again, I do have some reason to believe that he still pretends that I’m a boy, just to make it easier on himself. It’s fairly easy to do since I still have the boy name that they originally picked out.
With my head down, I trudge back out into the congested halls of Schiphol airport. Weary travelers bustle around me and I shift my bags so that I can pull the stubborn strap of my tank top back over my shoulder where it belongs. As I do, I crash into someone with enough force that my bags go flying out of my hands and scatter onto the ground under people’s feet.
“Son of a –“ I blurt before I even think.
“Buck?” a male voice offers helpfully.
Looking up, I stare into the most unique and beautiful shade of blue that a pair of eyes has ever possessed. Of that I am certain. Blue just shouldn’t be that multi-faceted and twinkling. There should be a law or something.
Or at least a warning label:
Caution, these eyes may cause female knees to tremble.
Before I can help it, I scan the rest of him. Sweet Mary. This guy had lucked out in the gene department. Tall, slender, beautiful. Honey colored hair that had natural highlights that could even catch the crappy airport light, broad shoulders, slim hips, long legs. He is tan and golden with a bright, white smile.
I am surely staring at Apollo, the god of the sun. Probably with my mouth hanging open, which makes me realize that I must look like an idiot- the personification of what foreigners think Americans to be. I snap my mouth closed.
“I’m sorry,” I say quickly, trying to still my racing heart. “Did I run into you?”
“Only a bit,” Apollo says gentlemanly, with a shrug of his strong shoulders. I can tell he is strong even through his shirt sleeves, which are snug across his toned biceps. Sweet baby monkeys.
“How can someone run into someone else only by a bit?” I ask with a nervous smile as I kneel to retrieve my stuff.
Please don’t let him smell me right now, I silently pray to any god who cares to listen. I am sure that at this point in my travels, I probably smell like soiled hamster bedding.
He bends next to me and picks up the contents of my spilled purse. He smells like sunshine. And rain. And everything beautiful that I can think of. I try not to cringe as his fingers grasp a tampon and slide it back inside my bag. He doesn’t even flinch, he just casually continues to pick up my things like he’s used to handling feminine hygiene products.
“Oh, it’s fairly easy, really,” he answers. He has an exotic sounding accent that I can’t place. “At least, when you’re not looking where you’re going.” My head snaps up and he laughs.
“I’m kidding,” he assures me as he extends an arm to me. Even his hand is graceful. I gulp as his fingers curl around mine. “You can bump into me any time you’d like.”
“Thanks,” I mumble. “I think.”
“I’m Dante,” he tells me, his impossibly blue eyes still twinkling.
“I’m Reece,” I answer with a sigh, already anticipating his reaction. “Yes, I know it’s a boy’s name.”
“You’re not a boy,” Dante observes. “Most definitely not a boy.”
Is that a note of appreciation in his voice? Surely not. I look like a bedraggled Shih Tzu.
“No, I’m not,” I agree. “I just don’t know that my dad ever got that memo.”
I look past Dante and find that he is alone. He seems to be about my age so that’s a little unusual in these circumstances. My parents had flown me as an ‘unaccompanied minor’ across the ocean for years, but other people’s parents are usually a little squeamish about that.
“I’m sure that fact hasn’t escaped him,” Dante tells me in amusement. Why do his eyes have to sparkle so much? I usually go for brown-eyed guys. But this boy is most certainly making me re-think that stance.
“That’s debatable,” I sigh. Realizing that we are impeding the busy pedestrian traffic like a dam in a rushing river, I smile.
“Thank you very much for helping me pick up my things. Safe travels!”
I turn on my heel and pivot, walking quickly and what I hope is confidently in the other direction. Hitching my heavy purse up on my shoulder, I fight the urge to turn and look at him. Something about him is practically mesmerizing.
But I don’t look. I keep walking, one foot in front of the other. When I reach the moving walkway, I hop on and focus ahead of me, eyes straight forward.
Don’t look back.
Don’t look back.
Don’t look back.
Regardless of my silent chanting, when I step from the walkway I discreetly check behind me. Apollo is nowhere to be seen. With a sigh, I continue on to the British Airways terminal. Only three short hours left until take-off. Plugging my earbuds into my ears, I settle into a seat and close my eyes.
* * *
“Excuse me, Reece?”
Before I even open my eyes, I know the sexy accent is coming from Apollo. I can feel his epic hotness emanating through my eyelids. I only hope that I haven’t been drooling in my sleep.
“Yes?” I ask as nonchalantly as I can while my eyes pop open. I try to discreetly smooth my hair down. In my head, I envision myself as Chewbacca from Star Wars and wince.
Dante hands me my phone, which must’ve fallen from my lap as I napped.
“Are you on the flight to London?” he grins. “They’re boarding priority travelers now. I just thought you should know.”
Yikes. I had slept for three hours? In a noisy airport? I must have been super tired.
“Thank you,” I reply quickly, gathering my things in a rush. “I didn’t mean to fall asleep. I’m not a priority traveler, but I probably would have slept through general boarding. Thank you for waking me.”
I glance at him as I stand up and can’t help but do a double take. It isn’t easy to get used to his particular brand of sexy. He is laid-back, handsome and casual, which is a formula for utter female devastation. The impossible thing is that he doesn’t seem to realize it. He’s effortlessly sophisticated and chic.
“Well, you’re awake now and that’s the important thing. Have a nice trip, Reece,” Dante grins once more before he joins a group of men who are apparently waiting for him. I was wrong, I guess. He isn’t alone after all. The men close around him in a tight circle and they board the plane with the other passengers with first class tickets.
He’s on my flight.
I gulp and find a place in line with the other travelers flying coach.
As the richer, better-dressed passengers file past us, I feel a little like a bumpkin in rumpled clothing. Even though I travel to London every summer to visit my dad, I live in rural America the rest of the year. And all of a sudden, I feel like I am wearing a blinking neon sign proclaiming that very fact. The clothing that had seemed sophisticated to travel in this morning now seems like it was hand-made in someone’s backwoods shed.
And it so makes sense that Apollo is in first class. He smells like a beautiful sunrise in a wooded meadow. Oh, my gosh. What is wrong with me? Where did that come from? I am totally being as corny as an erectile dysfunction commercial.
I roll my eyes at my own absurdity and hand my ticket to the heavily made-up flight attendant who is waiting to take it. She glances at it and then at me before she stamps my passport and hands it back.
“Have a nice flight, Miss Ellis,” she tells me before turning her attention to the passenger behind me.
I like flying almost as much as I like having dental work. Or having my fingernails pulled out one by one. Or having paper cuts sliced onto my legs and then lemon juice poured onto them. Just about that much.
Filing down the narrow aisle through first class, I can’t help but search out Apollo. It doesn’t take long to find him. He is situated by the window in a wide, leather first-class seat. He’s already covered in a warm blanket and looks like he is settling in for the hour long flight. As I move closer to him, his eyes pop open and meet mine, the electric blue of his almost causing me to gasp aloud.
He smiles slightly as I pass and his gaze doesn’t waver from mine.
I find myself wishing that I could sit next to him. Not only because of the lavish first class seats, although those would be nice too.
But rather, there is something in the air between Dante and me. I can feel it, an instant connection. I can practically reach out and touch it. I’ve never experienced chemistry like this in my life. It’s the kind that seems corny when you read about it in books, but in real life, it is anything but. It is simply electrifying. Ripping my eyes from his, I continue down the aisle and find my seat.
Taking a deep breath, I stash my carry-on in the overhead bin and slump into the window seat, trying not to hyperventilate as my fear of flying suddenly overwhelms me while the cramped airplane closes in around me.
Deep breath in.
Deep breath out.
I watch the flight crew below me loading the bags into the belly of the plane. What if they dislodge the landing gear while they are messing around down there? What if they don’t check the systems well enough and we die in a fiery crash? What if the metal holding the plane together rips off in the air and peels away like tissue paper?
Deep breath in.
Deep breath out.
I might die.
I listen impatiently as the flight attendants give their safety spiel and motion toward the exits like they are NFL referees with dumb tiny scarves around their necks. I just need for them to get on with it. Just let us taxi out and take-off and then I will be perfectly fine once we are in the air. My hands get clammy and my ears start to roar. Why am I such a freak?
Deep breath in.
Deep breath out.
You freaking flight attendants.
I’m just getting ready to shove my earbuds back in to distract myself when Dante appears next to me like a savior or an angel or something of equal beauty and importance.
“Is this seat taken?” he smiles and I notice a dimple in his right cheek that I hadn’t noticed before. How had I missed a dimple?
“Um, not that I know of,” I answer weakly, trying not to die from heart palpations. “But the seat belt sign is on. You’re not supposed to be out of your seat.”
Fabulous. Now I sound like a hall monitor with a heart problem.
Dante shrugs without seeming worried.
“I think it will be okay,” he answers. “We’re not even on the runway yet.”
“Can I sit here? I’m bored up front.”
I nod, my palms instantly clammier. “I hope you brought your blanket. You won’t get much back here except for a bag of peanuts.”
And now I sound like a cheap hall monitor with a heart problem. I’m presenting myself better and better by the moment.
Dante smiles yet again and sits next to me. He brings his charming accent with him and the scent of his amazing cologne. I take a deep breath. He smells far better than the stale airplane air. Far better. I fight the urge to jump into his lap and inhale his neck, a maneuver that just might make me appear slightly insane.
“You look pretty pale,” he observes as he buckles up. “Are you afraid to fly?”
“Is it that obvious?” I ask quietly. “As much as I’ve flown in my lifetime, I should be used to it. But I’m afraid that’s never going to happen. Once I’m in the air for awhile, I’ll be fine, but until then… well, I’m terrified. I admit it.”
“Don’t worry,” Dante tells me quietly, his voice calm and reassuring. “There’s nothing to be afraid of. You’re more likely to get into a--”
“Car crash rather than die in a plane crash,” I interrupt. “Yes, I know. I’ve heard. Where are you from?” I ask curiously, half out of genuine curiosity and half out of the need to distract myself. “You have the most interesting accent.”
He smiles, his teeth brilliantly white. I decide on the spot that I could watch him smile all day long.
“Caberra,” he answers, reminding me that I had asked a question. “It’s an island near Greece. And you?”
“Like you don’t know that I’m American,” I chuckle. “I know it’s written all over me. I’m sure you’re a fan, right?”
“Of Americans?” he raises a golden eyebrow. “Of course. I love them. I have no reason not to. They bring a lot of tourist dollars to Caberra.”
“Well, we are a land of excess,” I admit. “But that’s usually what foreigners seem to hate about us.”
Dante stares at me for a moment and then smiles. “Well, I can’t speak for all foreigners, but I don’t hate Americans. And you’re not in America right now, are you?”
I shake my head. “No, I am most certainly not.”
“Well, then. You’re the foreigner now.” He grins and I can’t help but smile back. He has a point.
The pilot gets on the intercom and his nasally voice drones on and on, but I am able to tune it out as I engage in conversation with a boy who is surely a direct descendent of the gods. There is no other plausible explanation for his good looks or charm. I barely even hear the words that come out of Dante’s mouth, because I am so mesmerized by the shape of his lips as he moves them. Pathetic, I know, but true.
One thing about me: I don’t lie to myself. I might stretch the truth for my parents from time to time when necessary, but never to myself. And I’m pathetically fascinated by this boy.
Finally, the aircraft shudders a bit and noses forward and I startle, gripping the arms of my seat. My fingers turn white and I am certain that I am leaving permanent indentions in the cracked vinyl arm-rests.
“Don’t worry,” Dante says quietly, unpeeling one of my hands and grasping it within his own. “It will be fine.”
The feel of his hand distracts me. Strong and warm, it cups my own carefully, like he is holding something very fragile. I close my eyes and enjoy the feeling. I only have a couple of minutes to soak it in, however.
As the plane moves down the runway in preparation for take-off, something happens. Something isn’t right.
Our plane rocks a little, then quivers, like it is being moved by a strong gust of wind. I feel it a brief moment before Dante tightens his grip on my hand, a split second before light explodes from outside of my eyelids. I open them to discover fire tearing down the runway past my window. Before I can react or even scream, all hell breaks loose.
There are rose bushes everywhere. And peonies, which are my favorites. And lots of white marble statues of Greek gods. And one of Napoleon. Why in the world is this country so obsessed with Napoleon?
I am just wondering if the small statue is life-sized when Dante interrupts any coherent thought process that I might have by striding across the lawns with a racquet in hand and wearing short-short tennis shorts.
It’s like a slow-motion scene from a movie. Dante shakes his blond bangs out of his eyes and the sun catches every glint of gold in his hair. His legs are long, lean, tanned and muscled and HolyCowThereIsAGod. If I were a man, I would totally be wolf-whistling right now. But then again, if I were a man, I guess I wouldn’t be wolf-whistling at Dante.
I’m such a weirdo.
Mia shows me how to get water out of the tube when it leaks in by blowing it out sharply. She tells me that the most common problem is when new divers get flustered when water gets into their tubes. I’m supposed to keep calm and simply blow the water out. That’s a little difficult to do when I’m so completely focused on watching for sharks.
We swim and after a few minutes, more like thirty, I start to feel more at ease.
Every once in a while, Mia reaches out and grabs my hand and pulls me to a different place where we watch tropical fish leisurely swim in their little schools. Or a sea turtle gliding gracefully by. Or colorful tropical plants waving in the current.
Under the surface, the water is perfect and aqua and silent. There is no drama, there are no mean girls and best friends and boys that I shouldn’t have crushes on but do anyway.
I sort of love it.
I kick my legs, letting the water flow fluidly over me. I am weightless here. I am relaxed and I haven’t been this comfortable in a long time.
Just as I am thinking about how wrong I had been to be terrified of sharks and about how wonderful this is and how I have never been this comfortable or relaxed in my whole entire life, I spot something out of the corner of my eye that makes me freeze.
A gray bump slowly coming toward me.
I pull my head out of the water so that I can see better and find that Mia is nowhere near. But the gray sleek bump is only a hundred yards away and getting closer by the minute. I flail and splash, then remember from watching Shark Week on TV that you definitely don’t want to splash.
Sweet Holy Monkeys. What the eff do I do??
I yell for Mia, but don’t see her. Has she been eaten?
I look around frantically, but we’ve drifted to an isolated location and there isn’t anyone else here.
Except for me and the shark.
And the shark is certainly taking his time to reach me.
Oh my gosh.
Oh my gosh.
Oh. My. Gosh.
My breathing comes in pants as I try to slowly and calmly paddle backward, away from the shark, toward land, away from the shark. Toward Land. Away. From. The. Shark.
Then, a fin emerges. A fin. And I scream. And scream. And forget about not splashing. I am splashing so much that every shark and sea creature in a hundred mile radius will know that I’m here. And I don’t care. All I care about it surviving this shark attack. Because it is going to attack me. It’s stalking me right now like the prey that I am. And very soon that water around me will be red because I’m going to die a bloody death.
And then I notice that the fin is made from hands. A pair of hands.
What the eff?
Dante bursts from the water, wearing gray swim trunks and shaking droplets from his hair as he lunges to grab me with a roar.
I scream again because it’s happened so fast and my brain hasn’t had a chance to truly realize that it is Dante and not a shark.
I’m not going to die.
I’m not going to die.
I’m not going to die.
I’m not going to become breakfast for JAWS.
But I’m going to kill Dante.
“Why do you look sad?” I ask. “You live in a beautiful country with the world at your fingertips. Your dad is amazing and nice and you’re a billionaire. What could possibly make you sad?”
Dante studies me, his cobalt eyes serious, his expression unreadable.
“Let’s go for a walk,” he finally says. “Someplace quieter.”
A quiet place with Dante? Yes, Please!
I scramble to my feet and walk with him through the crowd again, this time oblivious to the stares. He has a huge stride and I find myself hurrying to keep up, two steps for every one of his. He weaves us through the people and out the doors in record time.
Before I know it, we are on a terrace. In the dark. Under the stars.
This may as well be Heaven.
In fact, it might actually be.
Have I died and didn’t realize it?
I flex my fingers and poke at my thigh.
My mind is fuzzy and I feel like I am moving slower than I actually am. Is life in slow motion right now or is it me? I blink hard then poke myself again.
“Are you alright?” Dante asks, watching me curiously. I nod.
“Yep. I’ve just never had three glasses of champagne before. In fact, I’ve never even had one. Until now.”
I giggle at the thought and Dante smiles.
“Okay, drunk girl. Let’s sit you down.”
He guides me to a lounger and eases me onto it. I clutch at his arm, not wanting to let him go. He stares down at me.
“You really have had too much to drink, haven’t you, little sunflower?”
The name warms my heart and I decide that he is the handsomest person in the world.
“Is handsomest a word?” I ask him.
He looks at me blankly.
“I don’t know,” he answers slowly. “Why?”
“You’re the handsomest person in the world,” I announce. “I don’t care if it’s a word or not. You are it, one way or another.”
Dante smiles and runs a hand through his hair, as though he’s trying to decide what to do.
“Oh. Okay. Um, thanks? What am I going to do with you? You’re adorable when you are drunk. But I made you drunk, even if it was an accident. How was I supposed to know that you’re such a lightweight?”
He sounds like he is waging some sort of battle with himself.
“Who exactly are you arguing with?”I ask, the champagne clouding my thoughts in a very thorough way. “You will get no arguments from me tonight. No matter what.”
He sighs, a husky and ragged sound.
I scoot closer to him and drag him down until he is sitting on the lounger with me. His warmth feels nice out here because the air has turned cool. It’s dark and I feel like we’re in our own little world. I run my fingers over his arm, then grip at his shoulders.
“You’re so strong,” I tell him. “And your fingers are so long.”
I don’t know what that has to do with anything, I just feel like pointing it out. Because his fingers are long. I pick up his hand and slide my own against it. His hand is at least a full inch longer than mine. Probably more. I curl my fingers around his and hold tight to his hand.
I look up at him.
He is so devastatingly beautiful in the moonlight.
I tell him so.
He stares at me, his dark gaze unwavering. Except for my knees. It definitely wavers my knees, if that is possible. I know I wouldn’t be able to stand up if I tried. Which I’m not going to. I’m staying right here…with Dante.
“Kiss me,” I whisper. “Please.”
Dante is silent, his blue eyes frozen on me.
And then he lowers his head and his soft lips are upon mine.
And I might seriously die this time.
I’m kissing Dante.
The thoughts won’t stop running through my head as Dante kisses me in the most romantic and soft kiss I’ve ever experienced. My thoughts blur together and all I can do now is immerse myself in the moment. The world actually seems to explode for a second. This is the most amazing kiss in the history of the world.
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