Last First Kiss – The First Chapter…

Last First Kiss – The First Chapter…

Chapter One

Parker Haven wound her way through the brick streets, the early autumn rain lifting the wet stone scent of the cobblestones to her nose as she turned to avoid the crush of bodies coming toward her. The backstreets of Salerno were always crowded, but this morning there was a throng of people pressing through the back alleys like a rush of rainwater through a parched valley. She stayed close to the brick wall of the alley around the front corner of the building and then into Pavé, her favorite café and the only place that felt like home.

The building that housed it was narrow and several stories tall, typical of the Italian architecture from the late seventeenth century. The café was tiny, with a timber-framed doorway, crumbling brick-and-plaster walls, and tables adorned with chipped saucers containing brown sugar cubes for coffee. The warmth of the wood-fired ovens behind the counter enveloped her as she sank down into a chair at her favorite table near the wall and pulled a stack of files from her bag.

Parker made it to the café most mornings from the US Army base where she was stationed and always placed the same order of rye toast, butter, and black coffee. This time, the spare breakfast was placed dangerously close to her usual stack of paperwork, which more than once had slid off the table and fluttered dramatically to the floor.

This morning the owner, a plump older woman in a faded linen apron, set Parker’s coffee on the table and waited until she looked up. Her accent made even English sound like Italian.

“You will eat today?”

Parker looked up and smiled. “I never eat much in the morning, Giada. You know that.”

Giada Cavalii shook her head, crumpling and smoothing her apron in one motion as she walked back to the kitchen.

Parker had been in southern Italy for the better part of a year, stationed at the North Atlantic Treaty Organization camp just outside of Salerno. A military organization, NATO was made up of representatives from twenty-eight North American and European countries, and she’d been brought in as a Gender Perspective Chief to deal specifically with women’s issues arising from conflict or immigration. Military service ran in her family; her grandmother had been an army nurse during World War II, and her father had fought in the Korean War. She’d been the only person in her family to choose a military career, since her brother Wes and his husband had instead started a business in their hometown in Alabama.

Parker had just finished her toast when Giada set a small dish of scrambled eggs on her table with a raised eyebrow just as the brass bell above the entrance clanged against the glass door. A young woman hurried in as they looked on, the scent of rain following her as she passed Parker’s table on the way to the counter, shrugging off her coat as she walked. She was slender, with full lips and thick hair that moved across her shoulders like dark water as she slipped behind the counter.

“Ma,” she said with a glance in Giada’s direction as she tied an apron low around her hips. “There’s a thousand people out there already, and they’re all headed in this direction.”

“And that is why your sister should be here, Alessia,” Giada said. “The music festival is the start of the season and I need to be in the kitchen.”

“What, she still hasn’t shown up?” Alessia said, pulling her hair up into a bun as she looked out the window. “She has to come in today. I haven’t been here since I bought the winery and I don’t have a clue about this new espresso machine. She knows that.”

A group of tourists pushed through the door as she spoke and started to line up in front of the counter, studying the menu painted in black onto the plaster wall behind the glass bakery cases. Parker heard Alessia mutter something in Italian under her breath as she walked over to the slick chrome-and-copper espresso machine, approaching as if it were a shadowed cougar in the wild. Giada left the register hurriedly to hand her the first few espresso orders.

“Just go back to the front, I’ve got this,” Alessia said, staring at the stainless steel pitcher of milk spitting back at her as she steamed it into foam. “It can’t be that much different than your last one.”

Parker went back to her stack of paperwork, but after a few minutes she saw Alessia toss the stack of orders down on the counter and rub her temples.

“Ma,” she called toward the register, tucking a stray lock of glossy hair back into her bun. “Did you know Lexie was planning to show up today, or were you just hoping?”

Giada just shook her head as she made change for a German tourist, then hurriedly dropped a sausage roll into a white paper bag and handed it over the counter. The line was quickly expanding into a crush of humanity that filled all the available standing room in the tiny café, with several more people forming a line that extended out the door and wrapped around the outside wall.

Parker was considering taking her work back to her office on the base when a piercing scream ricocheted against the walls, causing every head to turn in the direction of the espresso machine. Giada rushed over to find Alessia unsuccessfully dodging a flailing hose spurting water in every direction.

“Holy Mary Mother of God,” she said, making an unsuccessful attempt to capture the hose. “What did you do to it, Alessia?”

She finally managed to grab the hose, still flailing about like a medieval sea creature, and put it back into place as her daughter wrung the water from her white button-down shirt, now transparent and clinging to her skin.

“I didn’t do anything, it just attacked me.”

Giada glanced back at the growing line of customers pressed against the counter, all leaning in for a better look at the drama. Alessia took a handful of white towels from under the counter and disappeared around the corner into the kitchen just as the hose took flight again and water shot up over the bakery case, narrowly missing the next customer in line. Parker reached Giada just as she ducked to avoid the stream of water and managed to grab the hose. She attached it to the intake valve at the back of the espresso machine and looked over her shoulder, still holding the connection with her hand.

“Giada,” she said. “This hose should have a little metal clamp on the end that tightens on the valve. It keeps the hose from slipping off when the water pressure builds.”

“When my husband put it together last week he gave me a little box of…” Giada furrowed her brows, apparently struggling to find the correct word in English. “…more parts.”

“Spare parts?”

She nodded as she rummaged around in the drawer underneath the machine and handed Parker a rumpled cardboard box full of random screws and clamps. Parker chose the one she needed and tightened it onto the back of the hose as Alessia walked back up to the counter, tying the front of her still damp shirt at her waist. She looked Parker up and down, taking in her military uniform, then turned to her mother.

“Why is he here?”

Parker held her eyes until Alessia realized her mistake.

“Alessia, this is Captain Parker Haven. She eats breakfast here every morning,” Giada said, turning to Parker. “And this is my youngest daughter, Alessia, who was not raised to be so rude.”

Parker was used to being mistaken for a man, especially in Italy where fashion tended to lean toward classically feminine. She’d always been muscular and fit with broad shoulders, and Army regulations required her to wear her blond, shoulder-length hair pulled back tightly under her uniform cap. Except for the softness in her eyes, she’d always had a butch edge to her look.

Giada handed Alessia another crumpled stack of orders from her apron pocket.

“Start from the top with this cappuccino. I’m going back to the counter.”

“You can’t be serious,” Alessia said, her voice rising in panic as her mother walked away. “I still have no idea how to work this stupid machine.”

By the time she turned back, Parker had started a shot of espresso and was steaming a pitcher of milk. When it reached the right temperature, she poured the espresso into the white porcelain cup and topped it with foam. Parker tamped down the espresso grounds in the wand to start another shot, then glanced over at her and nodded at the cup still on the counter.

“You may want to deliver that before it gets cold.”

“Wait,” Alessia said, staring at the cappuccino. “How did you know how to do that?”

Parker winked as she wiped the foam from the tip of the steam wand. “That’s classified information, ma’am.”

She looked up just in time to see Alessia roll her eyes as she handed the cup to the customer across the counter. Her shirt was still damp enough to see through, revealing a slice of caramel skin just above her jeans. Parker made herself look away as she turned back around.

“I’d love to help you here, but the orders are written in Italian,” Parker said, sifting through the stack of discarded orders. “Either that or I just can’t read your mother’s writing.”

“It’s probably the latter, but you don’t have to stay.” Alessia held her hand out. “I can take it from here.”

Parker paused, but then nodded toward the tables and handed them over. “I’ll be right over there if you get snowed under.”

Alessia tipped her head to the side. “If…what?”

“If you get snowed under.” Parker washed her hands in the prep sink. “It means if you get too busy and need a hand.”

“This may come as a surprise,” Alessia said, adding to the stack of cups warming on top of the espresso machine. “But not every woman is waiting to be rescued by random Americans in uniform.”

“Understood,” Parker said with a smile as she put down the hand towel and edged past the customers on the way back to her table. She had three days of paperwork to finish, and after a while she was able to tune out the crowd enough to make progress. When she finally looked up after about an hour, she found Alessia standing at her table in an apron streaked with chocolate powder and espresso grounds, not quite meeting her eyes. When she spoke, Parker noticed her accent was softer at the edges than her mother’s, although still distinctly Italian.

“Okay,” she said. “It is…snowing.”

Parker tried not to smile as she gathered her things and followed her back behind the counter, stowing them out of the way and rolling up her sleeves. Alessia nodded to the massive stack of orders, toppled over in defeat and spread out across the counter.

“I don’t usually work here. My sister is supposed to be doing this, but she’s done a disappearing act. And I don’t know how to make them…look like you did.”

An impatient group of customers waited on the other side of the pickup counter, clearly willing someone to get to work on their drinks.

“Okay,” Parker said, glancing over at the crowd. “How old are these orders?”

“All within the last ten minutes.”

“Then let’s get all the espressos out first. They take the least time.” She looked over Alessia’s shoulders at the throng of people waiting. “How many of you ordered a single espresso?”

Seven hands went up and Parker started the shots. She pushed several buttons on the machine and packed the next espresso wands while they brewed. They were done in under a minute, and she poured them quickly into cups. Parker looked up again at the crowd and held up two fingers.

“And how many of you ordered a double?”

Four more hands went up, and within just a few minutes those customers had also left with their drinks, leaving a much smaller and more manageable group still waiting. Parker heard Alessia let out a slow breath beside her.

“Okay,” Parker said. “Do you think you can keep the espresso shots brewing while I steam milk and pour?”

Alessia nodded, pushing up the sleeves of her shirt. Her face was flushed, and her dark eyes flashed with unexpected flecks of gold in the light. Her face was bare except for perfect dark brows and a slick of red lipstick. She bit her lower lip as she looked up at Parker.

“And you’ll have to tell me what the drinks are.” Parker smiled, catching just a flash of a smile in return. “I just checked again, but it seems I still can’t read Italian.”

They worked side by side until the crowds coming through the door finally started to slow, a full hour after the café usually closed in the early afternoon. Alessia wiped the counter as Parker lined up the last few drinks.

“So how did you know how to do all this?” Alessia handed a cappuccino to a sleek American blonde who dumped three packets of sweetener into it before she dropped the empty packets on the counter and walked away. “And if you tell me it’s classified again, I’ll hit you with this towel.”

Parker smiled over her shoulder as she turned up the steam until the milk she was foaming reached the perfect density.

“My brother Wes owns the only coffee shop in Red Cove, Alabama, so they’re constantly busy. It’s not the first time I’ve been pulled in to help.” She rinsed the last of the wet grounds off her hands in the old ceramic sink and dried her hands with a towel as she leaned against it. “He pretty much considers me free labor.”

They watched as Giada finally flipped the sign on the door and hurried to the back, pulling Parker into a hug and kissing both her cheeks.

“You come to dinner tonight, no?” She looked at her daughter, who raised an eyebrow but said nothing. “Alessia will let you in the café door at seven and bring you upstairs.”

“Ma,” she said, untying her apron and shaking her head. “You know I can’t. I’m leaving now to break down those barrels at the winery.”

Giada waited, arms folded across her chest, until Alessia sighed and muttered to Parker not to be late, then walked out the door and disappeared into the crowded street, still wearing her coffee-stained apron.

Parker stopped on the way back to the café later that evening and picked up a bottle of wine. It felt strange to be wearing civilian clothes; after being stationed at NATO for nearly a year, it was the first time she’d worn something other than her uniform. At the last moment, she’d chosen her grey trousers, a slim black leather belt, and gloss wingtips, with a short-sleeved Cuban button-down. She’d almost forgotten how her hair looked when it wasn’t slicked back under her cap. The wind picked up the airy edges of it to remind her, touching it to her face as she walked.

She rounded the corner of the alley and saw Alessia through the glass leaning against the counter, looking at her watch. She was barefoot, in a navy dress with white polka dots that buttoned up the front, with dark, wild waves of hair around her face that she pushed behind her ear just as Parker knocked. Alessia jumped, startled, then unlocked the door.

“What?” Parker said as she came in. “Were you expecting some other random American to show up at your door?”

“I didn’t recognize you,” she said, locking the door behind Parker. “I guess I was expecting the uniform.”

Her eyes met Parker’s as she took the bottle of wine. “Thank you for this. I’ll be sure to give it to my mother.”

She paused, then clicked the light switch beside her to look more closely at the parchment label on the bottle.

“Mourvèdre?” She glanced up at Parker. “No one drinks mourvèdre.”

“I do,” Parker said. “And you’re right, it’s not for everyone. But I love it.”

Alessia’s fingertip traced the label as she met Parker’s eyes again. It was a moment before she spoke.

“What do you love about it?”

“The intensity,” Parker said, searching for the right words to describe it. “Or maybe ‘contrast’ is a better word. It starts floral, like violets, but turns harsh at the back of your throat, like swallowing ash.”

Alessia switched off the light then and motioned for Parker to follow. “I’ve never heard anyone describe it that way.” She crossed the café floor and had reached the door that led upstairs before Parker heard her speak without looking back, her words as soft as air. “But maybe they should.”

They climbed what looked like an endless stone spiral staircase until they reached a narrow landing with tall windows that overlooked the sea, warmed by the last of the setting sun. Alessia opened a heavy hand-carved pine door adorned by a handful of fresh lavender and led them into the bright yellow kitchen. The air was warm with the scent of simmering butter and white wine, and Giada was fussing over a sink full of mussels on ice, muttering to herself in Italian. Parker leaned in to Alessia, catching the faint scent of bergamot on her skin as she spoke.

“What did she say?”

Alessia shook her head as she watched her mother. “Evidently my father buried the wire brush she uses to clean the mussels underneath them when he dumped them into the sink.”

Giada looked up suddenly and smiled at Parker, coming over to clasp her face with icy hands and kiss both cheeks.

“Benvenuto! You save the café today,” she said, her smile as wide as her face. “So I cook for you tonight.”

Parker stepped up to the sink, plunged her hand to the bottom, and moved the ice aside until the wire brush scraped the tips of her fingers. She pulled it out of the sink and handed it to Giada, who shook her head and looked in her daughter’s direction.

“Now why your father not do that?” She picked up a mussel and scrubbed it with the brush, nodding toward the patio door. “You will set the table? The wine is there already.”

Alessia headed for the door just past the kitchen and motioned for Parker to follow. Parker watched the navy evening sky open up above them as they stepped out onto a rooftop patio. A long natural wood table was set with an assortment of mismatched chairs and benches, and a row of ivory candles occupied the center. Moss had grown between the wide, uneven stones that made up the floor, brilliant green and dense as velvet.

“There’s wine at the end of the table,” Alessia said, glancing up as she lit the first candle. “You can open one of the whites while I get these candles going.”

Parker chose a bottle from the ice-filled zinc bucket and poured, setting the empty glasses out along the tabletop. The sky had deepened into dense violet blue, and the faintest dusting of stars was visible just beyond the last of the terracotta rooftops.

“This is beautiful,” Parker said, handing Alessia her glass. “How long has your family lived here?”

“My father’s from Greece, but my mother’s family has lived here for over two hundred years.”

She flipped a switch on the outside wall and countless golden café bulbs lit up the dusk, strung in long rows overhead from the roof of the house to the ivy-covered stone barrier wall. Alessia took a sip from her glass and looked out over the horizon to the darkening sea in the distance.

“I’ve eaten dinner on this roof for as long as I can remember. My mother expects me every Sunday whether I want to be here or not.”

“Well,” Parker said, watching the light strings sway slightly in the breeze. “I love it. Thanks for inviting me.”

“I didn’t invite you.” Alessia’s eyes were still on the choppy, white-capped surface of the water. It was a moment before she spoke again. “My mother did.”

There was nothing to say in response to that, so Parker swirled the light, honey-colored wine in her glass and took a sip. It was very light, dry, almost grassy.

“I’ve actually never liked pinot grigio, but this is nice.”

Alessia took Parker’s glass and brought it to her nose, closing her eyes before she spoke.

“You still don’t,” she said, handing the glass back to her. “It’s sauvignon blanc.”

Parker walked back to the wine she’d opened; she’d intended to open the pinot grigio, but had mistaken it for a sauvignon blanc from Argentina. She looked up to see Alessia smile for the first time that evening as a salt breeze swept over the patio, taking the candle flames with it. Alessia pulled a book of matches out of her pocket and struck two that refused to light. The third match blazed to life, but the last of the breeze took it out as well.

Parker walked back and stepped between Alessia and the wind. She held her breath as she took the matches from her, not willing to take in the delicate warmth of her skin again. The match flared suddenly and Alessia lit the candles, then stepped back and tossed the spent match over the edge of the patio to the street below. She glanced at Parker then looked away, her fingers tracing the frayed edge of the matchbook before she slipped it back into her pocket.

“I know I’ve been rude today. I guess I’ve just had enough arrogant Americans to last a lifetime.”

“Well, damn,” Parker said, smiling and meeting her eyes as she finally looked up. “I guess I’m out of luck. That’s my best quality.”

Alessia laughed despite herself as Giada stepped out onto the patio carrying a steaming platter of mussels.

“Alessia, the bread?” she said, out of breath as she set the platter in the middle of the table and wiped her hands on her apron. “It is in too long.”

Giada rearranged the candles so they sat at each end of the table and slid the steaming platter to the center of it as Alessia disappeared into the kitchen and returned with the bread, a golden-brown loaf wrapped in a white cloth with a knife sticking straight up in the center.

“Alessia!” Giada said as she pulled it out and set it back on the cutting board. “Why you always do this? Is so aggressive.”

Alessia smiled. “I know, I know, respect the bread.” She pulled her mother into a hug and kissed her cheek. “I just wanted to hear you say it again.”

Giada smiled and brushed a stray lock of hair out of Alessia’s face, then returned to the kitchen, reemerging with a small ceramic bowl of butter. Parker poured Giada a glass of wine and handed it to her as Alessia glanced toward the house.

“Where’s Da?”

“Your father?” Giada said, smoothing her white cloth napkin onto her lap. “Who knows? He’s been closing up the shop for an hour now.”

“What?” Parker said, sure Alessia had locked the door behind them when they’d headed upstairs. “The café?”

“No,” Alessia said, spotting her father through the kitchen window on his way out to the patio. “He has the jewelry shop to the right of the café, Ravello Goldsmiths.”

Parker had seen it beside the café, typically Italian in style with expansive windows framed by shiny black shutters and gold lettering across the antique door. The jewelry in the windows was displayed on deep green velvet, the sun glinting across the polished gold and gemstones.

They all heard sudden pounding footsteps as Alessia’s father threw open the door and stopped in his tracks.

“So,” he said in a booming voice that seemed to bounce off the stone walls. “I finally meet this American?”

Parker stood and extended her hand as he approached the table, but he drew Parker into a hug, kissing both cheeks as he clapped a firm hand on her shoulder.

“Parker,” Alessia said as she stood. “This is my father, Salvatore Cavalii.

“It’s a pleasure to meet you, sir,” Parker said as they both sat back down. “You have a beautiful home. I’ve never seen anything like it.”

Alessia poured the wine into a glass and handed it to her father, who took an enthusiastic swig and nodded his approval. A vaguely familiar Italian opera drifted in from the door Salvatore had left open, and seagulls called and glided overhead. The streets and alleys below had grown quieter as darkness fell, just enough for faint sounds of the ocean to drift in with the breeze.

“So what is it you do here?” Salvatore said, shrugging his jacket off and draping it over the back in his chair. “You’re with the American military?”

Parker nodded and set her glass on the table. “Yes, sir,” she said. “I’m an officer in the US Army, stationed at NATO.”

Giada placed a large sprig of fresh rosemary at the bottom of each of their dishes, then ladled mussels and white wine broth over their shoulders as they spoke, the shells clattering into clay bowls glazed a faded white.

“What’s your rank?”

“Salvatore!” Giada paused and shot her husband a look, a ladle of steaming broth still in her hand.

“No, it’s okay,” Parker said, smiling. “It’s a fair question.”

Giada gave her husband a look and topped each dish with a torn hunk of flaky white baguette.

“I’m a captain, sir. I’m a detective with the MP in the States, but I’m on special assignment here at NATO.”

Giada sat and spooned broth over the mussels in her own bowl. “What is…the MP?”

Alessia spoke without looking up. “It stands for Military Police, Ma.”

Parker glanced in her direction, surprised that she’d answered a question most non-military Americans wouldn’t know. Salvatore dunked his bread in the savory broth and looked up at Parker.

“And how long are you here?”

“My deployment is for eighteen months, so I’ll be here for a while yet.”

Fragrant steam rose from Parker’s bowl as she pried the first mussel from its shell, bringing with it the warm, rich scent of garlic, butter, and wine, with fresh shallot and parsley scattered throughout. Parker was familiar with mussels, but the intensity of the flavors in this dish surprised her. It was briny, like sharp seawater, but warmed and softened by the wine.

“Alessia,” Salvatore said, tearing a chunk from his baguette and dunking it in his dish. “What wine is this?”

“The one we’re drinking now is a sauvignon blanc from Argentina, but the wine I actually brought for the mussels is a steel-cask chardonnay from the Willamette Valley in Oregon.”

Giada smiled and glanced from her daughter to Parker. “We are very proud of Alessia,” she said. “She is a wine genius.”

Alessia gave her mother a look and attempted to change the subject, but Salvatore swiftly intercepted, lifting his wineglass for emphasis.

“This is true,” he said. “Since she was a little girl, she’s always seen the world through her nose.”

He tossed a handful of empty mussel shells over his shoulder to the stone floor and the seagulls descended immediately, searching for unretrieved bits of meat, expertly kicking aside the shells with their feet. Alessia and her mother looked up at each other, both raising an identical eyebrow at Salvatore.

“When I was little my sister and I used to toss the shells to the gulls,” Alessia explained. “And it seems my father has never tired of it, although it’s less than charming when a grown man is doing it.”

“I don’t know about that,” Parker said with a wink in Salvatore’s direction. “The gulls seem to love it.”

She dunked a piece of bread into her bowl and looked over at Alessia.

“Actually,” she said. “I think I need to know more about you being a wine genius.”

“What,” Giada said, glancing at her daughter. “I say wrong? You are a…wine master?”

Alessia whispered something in Italian and squeezed her hand as she looked over at Parker.

“I’m a sommelier, and I work as a wine consultant.” She refilled her mother’s wineglass, handed it back to her, and took a sip from her own. “It’s no big deal.”

“It’s a huge deal,” Salvatore cut in, his attention now diverted from the gulls and placed firmly on his daughter. “She’s being modest. She’s a master sommelier, one of only about two hundred in the world.”

“And only twenty-six of those are women,” Giada said, beaming at her daughter. “We are very proud.”

Giada scooped the last of the mussels into Parker’s dish as Salvatore refilled the half-empty wineglasses and opened the next bottle. The lights overhead glittered on the surface of the light gold wine slowly sinking into the glass, illuminating it against the black expanse of sky. The crash of waves against the beach in the distance had grown suddenly louder, as if the cover of darkness had emboldened it.

Salvatore placed another piece of bread on top of Parker’s dish and then his own.

“So,” he said, buttering his bread and topping it with a flourish of flaked sea salt. “What do you think of our beautiful country? Is it the first time you’ve seen it?”

“It is,” Parker said, dropping an empty shell in the dish beside her plate. “And I love it. The food, it’s…” She paused, searching for the word. “Beautiful. Not at all like what I’m used to.”

“How so?” Alessia turned to look at Parker.

“It’s hard to describe,” Parker said, pausing to choose her words carefully. “More thoughtful, maybe.”

“And how would you describe food in America?” Alessia asked, her eyes still on Parker.

“Don’t get me wrong, there are great restaurants,” Parker said, her words slowed by thought. “But they’re mostly in major cities.” She paused, glancing down the table at Alessia. “But it’s a whole different world. The pace of everyday life is faster there. Most people don’t have time to sit and eat together.”

“In Italy, food islife,” Salvatore said, wiping his mouth with his napkin and setting it squarely in the center of his plate. “Nothing is more important than eating with your family.”

“Take my advice: get out now while you can.” Alessia smiled as she stood and gathered the empty dishes with Giada. “He’s about to explain his theories on food as a form of edible art.”

Salvatore winked at Parker as he stood and took the dishes from Alessia and motioned for her to sit, then followed his wife into the kitchen, pulling her into an impromptu dance as the last dramatic strains of the opera drifted out to the rooftop. Giada laughed and pretended to resist as they fell perfectly into step, framed in the golden light by the kitchen windows.

Alessia stood and reached over to the opposite end of the table for the bottle of mourvèdre, her hair brushing across Parker’s shoulder. She nodded toward the kitchen as she cut the foil, which Parker took to mean they’d need new glasses, so she retrieved two clean crystal glasses and set them on the table as Alessia pulled the cork from the bottle.

“Are you trying to get me drunk?”

“Well, you’re an American, so that wouldn’t be hard.” Alessia poured a taste into each. “But I’m actually curious to taste this violet ash you were talking about.”

“So you get me to describe the wine, then tell me you’re a master sommelier?” Parker raised an eyebrow. “That doesn’t seem fair.”

Parker caught a flash of a smile as Alessia handed her a glass.

“Well,” Alessia said. “If fair is a prerequisite, you’re drinking with the wrong girl.”

She swirled the wine in her glass and watched it move, her eyes locked onto the glass. They were dark like wet earth, with lashes that brushed her cheeks when she closed her eyes to taste the wine. She covered her mouth and nose with the glass, then drew a slow breath and tipped it to her lips. The wind lifted hair and brushed it against her cheek as she lowered the glass, eyes still closed.

“So, what do you taste?”

“Not the violets,” she said, opening her eyes. “When are you getting that?”

“You mean when do I taste it?”

“Yes. Violet is nuanced, so you’ll have to guide me there.”

Parker smiled, raising an eyebrow.

“And if you ever tell anyone I just said that, I’ll have you killed.”

“No promises,” Parker said, lifting her glass to her lips as Alessia shot her a look.

“What are you doing?”

“Tasting the wine,” she said, smiling. “I thought you might have picked up on that one.”

Alessia took the glass out of Parker’s hand and set it back on the table, then went back to her own and swirled it, the dark currant tint thinning as it spun, transmuting into a slick of ruby. Parker reached again for her own glass.

“Don’t touch that glass,” Alessia said, her eyes locked onto the wine as it slowed and intensified back into a deep currant hue. “I’ll tell you when you can taste it.”

Parker smiled, leaning back in her seat. “Yes, ma’am.”