Liz asked me to drop by and introduce myself. Roman - we've had a palazzo in the city for more than seven generations - Italian, a botanist, wine maker, the head of the Serrone family, with all that entails.
That's it - I hate talking about myself and anyway the Italian gossip magazines have been having a field day with the revelations about our family in the last few weeks. It’s all there so maybe I should tell you about my home instead.
My family have been there for centuries, we one with the soil. The Volci were here before the upstart Romans got going and we still speak a dialect that predates Latin.
Italian is a very modern language – created to unite a country that was a series of city states, each with their own language. Dante’s writing was used as a template, which is why Italian is so beautiful but at home we still speak the old language.
I really couldn’t blame him.
I’d only been with her a few moments and I was kissing her. Her reaction, the tears, left me as shaken as she clearly was. What could I do but offer her lunch? How better to get to know her? To find out why she was so interested in my house. What she was doing so far off the tourist trail.
Good food, my best wine, will lower the guard, reveal secrets.
‘So,’ he said, as they dug into the creamy pasta, ‘you didn’t tell me how long you have been in Rome?’
‘A month, give or take a few days.’
‘And you are enjoying it?’
‘Great job. Great apartment. What’s not to like?’
‘You have a job?’ he asked, clearly astonished.
‘I’m sorry. I didn’t mean so sound so surprised, but since you don’t speak Italian…’
‘I’m teaching at an English language school in Rome. Maternity cover.’
It was clearly not what he’d been expecting if the barely perceptible pause, an instinctive lift to his brows was anything to go by. But he was swift to recover.
‘History,’ he said. ‘I recall that you have a degree in history.’
‘It feels a bit like taking coal to Newcastle to be honest,’ she said. Then, because he clearly hadn’t a clue what she was talking about, ‘They used to mine vast quantities of the stuff in Newcastle. It’s a saying.’
‘Of course. I understand. But your degree is in Modern History.’
‘I’ve become pretty familiar with the Tudors, since they’re part of the curriculum. But not a Roman in sight,’ she admitted.
‘Are you enjoying it?’
‘Yes, I am.’ Which was true. The job. Rome.
‘But you must miss your family. Friends.’
‘They are a telephone call away. We exchange emails, photographs.’ As if to make the point, she picked up her phone and dropped it in her bag. ‘Chat on Skype.’
‘It’s not the same,’ he pointed out. ‘A computer can’t give you a hug.’
She laughed. ‘No, that’s true.’ And you had to like a man who understood the need for a hug now and then. ‘But I always wanted to travel.’ She lifted her shoulders. ‘I talked about doing a gap year, before university, but in the end I decided to be sensible, get the degree and the PGCE over and done with first, then travel.’ Sensible Sarah. ‘I had all the brochures, was deciding where I’d go, what I’d do, when the dream job came up. Too good to miss and when I met Tom on my first day it seemed like fate…’
‘Everything set fair until he ran into the boulder.’
And she smiled again, not because she didn’t still have the bruises, but what was the point in poking at them to see how much they hurt? It was over. It had been over from the moment Louise had walked into the staff room. Forget the teeth and claws. Why would she fight for a man who had never looked at her the way he’d looked at Louise? As if he’d been felled.
Being mean was pointless. Louise had the kind of voluptuous figure that any man would swoon over. But Matteo had made her laugh about it. Who would have guessed that was ever going to happen?
‘This seemed like a good moment to go back to the beginning,’ she said. ‘I signed up with an agency which recruits teachers for overseas jobs, got a reference so good from my Headmaster that I suspect he couldn’t wait to be rid of me.’ She pulled a face. ‘It’s tricky when you all work together.’
‘A decent man would have left.’
‘He did, but he’s head of sports. The kids love him. And I’m the one who always wanted to travel.’
‘You left so that he could return to his job?’ He grinned. ‘I take it all back. You are not nice, Sarah Gratton.’
How much “nicer” could a woman get?
‘Every day this man goes to work he will know he has you to thank for his job. And so will Louise. She won’t be able to stand it. Sooner or later she’ll insist he changes his job and he’ll blame her. It’s positively Machiavellian.’
The chicken, golden-skinned and scented with rosemary, arrived at that moment, giving her a moment to gather herself.
It wasn’t true. It couldn’t be.
Did that warm glow come from knowing she’d done the right thing? Or was that no more than self-righteous cant?
How many times had she imagined him walking down the corridors, seeing her everywhere the way she’d seen him? Missing her? Realising what a mistake he’d made?
Matteo dressed a green salad. Topped up her glass.
‘No need to look so distraught, Sarah. You didn’t twist his arm. The choice was his.’
‘He loved his job.’
‘So did you.’
‘Yes, I did. But right now I’m picking up my life plan, taking the first step on my journey around the world.’
‘You are happy?’
Right now? At this minute? With the sun slanting through the heavily laden vines overhead. The soft murmur of insects, the scent of warm earth and Matteo di Serrone teasing her, making her laugh.
‘Yes,’ she said. ‘I’m happy.’
He glanced across the table, holding her fixed in the power of his dark eyes as he said, ‘Then let me say that I’m very glad you started your journey in Rome, Sarah.’
And she found herself saying, ‘So am I.’
The chicken was amazing, a melting of dollop of dolcelatte could not be denied, but she finally begged for mercy when he offered her a peach.
‘Enough. No more.’
‘You must have something. A pear? A plum?’ Then, in apparent desperation, ‘A grape?’
She laughed. She couldn’t remember the last time she’d laughed as much.
‘No,’ she declared. ‘Not even a grape.’ But refusing to take no for an answer, Matteo reached up and plucked a huge dark grape from a bunch growing above his head. Held it close enough to her lips for her to smell the sweetness.
‘Resistance is futile,’ he said and she felt herself sliding into temptation.
Everything today had been about the senses.
Vivid colour, the scent of herbs and the sun-baked earth. The touch of a man’s lips for the first time in months.
Languorous in the still heat of the early afternoon, lulled by the faint hum of drowsy insects, mesmerised by Matteo’s dark eyes gleaming softly in the shade, urging her to this one last pleasure, she leaned forward the inch required to take the grape, closing her lips around it. Around the tips of his fingers.
The grape exploded on her tongue, the juice dribbling over her lips, over his fingers. And it seemed the most natural thing in the world to lick it up…
All the details of the competition are in the previous post - you have three questions to answer, and for three chances to win send all your answers to Anne, Kate and Liz.
Meanwhile, I have a fountain to fill with wine and a statue to organise before the wedding.