He’s a battered M15 agent.
She’s his childhood sweetheart.
Together, they’re INVINCIBLE.
I’m hurt, but I’m not broken. You can’t break me. I don’t need pity, I just need her. Pia Deltetto. Miles and lives apart, I would do anything for her. And now, she’s in danger, with time running out. I refuse to walk away—ever again.
Years ago, young and in love, Tuscany was our dream and he was my fantasy. Time has changed us, hurt us, shattered us. But I need him now to help me save my family’s estate. With everything on line, now more than ever—I need GRINDED.
Ten Years Ago
Val d’Orcia, Italy
“It’s two months. You’ll survive,” my older sister, Lily, said the day my parents and I left London and traveled to Tuscany. Easy for her to say since she didn’t have to spend her summer holiday in a country where she didn’t know a soul.
I sighed and dropped my bags in what would be my bedroom, my sanctuary, my escape for the next sixty-five days. I flung myself on the bed, put my hands under my head, and looked out the window.
The place where my parents and I were staying, sat on the edge of the estate and winery known as Antica Cascina dei Conti di Valentini—which translated to “Ancient Farmhouse of the Counts of Valentini.” Looking out at the much newer and larger villa in the distance, my guess was we were staying in the estate’s namesake.
I pulled a book out of my travel bag and rested my head on the pillow that felt as old as the farmhouse. I wasn’t through the first chapter when I heard a female laughing outside the window.
I rolled out of bed and caught a glimpse of a girl more beautiful than any I’d ever seen. She was walking backward in the open field adjacent to the house.
A teenage boy followed, who she alternately ran from and then turned around and teased, laughing all the while. I was transfixed, unable to tear my eyes away even when she caught me spying on them from the window and waved. Only when the guy she was with turned, followed her line of sight, and flipped me off, did I retreat back to my bed.
I picked up my book, but set it back down when I realized I’d read several paragraphs and didn’t retain a word. I closed my eyes and pictured her. Who was she? I had to find out.
It was several days before I saw her again. I’d reached the point where I doubted I would.
On this particular morning, my father begged off taking my mum to the open-air market in the local village, so she recruited me. I didn’t complain. In fact, I welcomed the change of scenery.
As I leaned my torso against the car, I felt her before I saw her. I slowly turned, and there she was, standing next to a fountain. A bouquet of flowers dangled in her hand, the petals brushing the cobblestones beneath her feet.
“Buongiorno,” she said, raising her free hand.
“Buongiorno.” I raised my hand too. As she walked closer, I let my eyes drift from her waist-length dark hair to her warm brown eyes, her pretty neck, her narrow waist, and her long legs. I tried to keep my eyes from lingering too long on the way her boobs strained the fabric of her dress, or on how the pale blue of it made her smooth skin appear the color of honey.
“You like to look,” she said, standing less than a foot from me. “From windows, as I walk toward you…”
“It’s hard not to. You’re very beautiful.”
Her eyes scrunched and she cocked her head. “Beautiful?”
“Is there something wrong with being beautiful?”
She shrugged her shoulders. “There is more to see in a woman than her beauty.”
She smiled. “Tell me what else you see.”
“You like to laugh.”
She raised a brow.
I looked her up and down a second time, which didn’t appear to bother her. “Your dress. The way you carry your flowers as though you’ve almost forgotten they’re in your hand because your mind is in the clouds instead.”
She came closer and leaned against the car. The scent of her overwhelmed me.
“And you smell bloody fantastic.”
She bent at the waist and laughed just like she had the first time I saw her walking in the field. I loved the sound of it.
“Oh, good. Miles, I’m so happy you’ve finally met Pia,” I heard my mum say. She thrust the bags of bread, vegetables, and other purchases into my arms and then cheek-kissed the woman next to me.
“I’ve heard so much about you, Mylos,” Pia said, using the Italian version of my name while brushing her shoulder against mine.
I couldn’t help but glare in my mother’s direction.
“All good, Miles,” she said, taking one of the bags from my arms and tossing it in the car through the open window. “We’re just heading back. Can we give you a lift, Pia?”
“Grazie, but I have a few more errands in the village.”
“We could wait,” I blurted at the same moment a guy approached, put his arm around Pia’s waist, and leaned into her.
“Ti stavo cercando, bella.”
“I haven’t been hiding, Paolo.”
“Andiamo.” He grabbed the hand that held her flowers.
“Arrivederci, Signora Stone, Mylos.”
“Well, that was rude.” My mum huffed and grabbed the rest of her purchases from my arms and put them in the car through the window like she had the other.
I watched as Pia walked away with Paolo, realizing now he was the same guy I saw her with from my window, the one who’d flipped me off. I was bothered less by his rudeness than the idea the arsehole was her boyfriend.
My mum prattled on all the while I drove back to the farmhouse. I learned that Pia, who was my age, was the only daughter of Giovanni Deltetto and his wife, Countess Maria. She had no idea why Pia’s mother was a countess and her father wasn’t a count, nor did she know who Count Valentini was other than that the estate named for him had been in their family for several generations.
Later, as we sat on the terrazza having just finished another brilliant dinner prepared by my mum, who’d embraced Mediterranean cuisine in a way she never had with traditional English fare, we heard loud voices coming from the direction of the hilltop villa.
“Oh, dear,” she muttered, getting up to clear the dishes and take them inside. My father joined her, but I didn’t.
I walked down the steps to the lawn and looked toward the sound of the voices. I couldn’t make out the exact words, but I could tell that a male and female were in a heated argument. I wasn’t certain the female’s voice was Pia’s, but it sounded like it could be.
When the shouting died down, I went inside, where I found my parents sitting at the table in the kitchen.
“Everything all right?”
“Your mum finds this somewhat…disconcerting.”
I nodded, wondering—not for the first time—what they were thinking when they’d decided to rent a place in Italy for an entire summer holiday. I mean, what had they expected?
The following week, when my mum appeared recovered from the excitement of a few days prior, I volunteered to take her into the village. I suppose part of me hoped to run into Pia again, given I hadn’t seen her since the day we met.
Rather than waiting at the car, this time, I walked through the market after both my parents, since Dad had also volunteered to ride along.
“Where did she learn this?” I asked my father as we both stood stunned, watching my mum haggle with the street vendors. “I didn’t even know she spoke Italian.”
He shook his head. “Pia coached her. If you pay attention, you’ll notice she repeats the same phrases again and again. I don’t know the exact translation, but I believe she’s calling them crazy for asking for so much money.”
Now that he mentioned it, I had heard her say the word pazzo, which meant crazy, although I was fairly certain she was using it in the wrong context.
I turned around and looked out at the fountain that sat in the middle of the public square. I sighed, wishing for just one glimpse of the girl I couldn’t stop thinking about.
Someone else caught my eye instead. Paolo. I squinted and took a second and third look just to confirm the girl he was with, the one he had his arm around, the one whose neck he just nuzzled, was absolutely not Pia.
This had to mean I’d been right when I guessed it was them arguing that night on the hilltop. It also had to mean they’d broken up.
When I saw him look over, I spun around so my back was to him.
“What’s this?” asked my dad when my expression of bored disinterest transformed into a smile I couldn’t contain.
“Nothing…Think Mum is ready to head back?”
My father shook his head and motioned over to where she was embroiled in an argument with the fishmonger as heated as the one we overheard that had sent her into such a tizzy.
Three more days passed before I finally saw Pia again.
I spent as much time as I could outside, taking in the lush, rolling hillsides covered in vineyards and orchards. Val d’Orcia, where the estate was located, was arguably the most beautiful stretch of Tuscan countryside in existence, and the sandstone villa and accompanying winery was as picture-perfect as the landscape. If I were to close my eyes and imagine what a quintessential view of Italy might be, even before visiting, this was exactly what I would’ve conjured.
While I traipsed along the rows and rows of grapevines, I’d stopped short of knocking on the door of the villa and asking for her. This morning I woke determined to talk to her.
I walked up the hillside, certain I felt the eyes of the vineyard workers settle on me as I trudged by. Was it my imagination that they were snickering?
“Tu chi sei?” I heard a voice ask when I reached the terrazza that led to the villa’s front door.
“I’m Miles. My parents and I…”
“I know who you are. What do you want?”
If he knew who I was, why had he asked?
“Um…is Pia home? I’d like to speak with her.”
“No.” He waved his hand as though he was dismissing me.
As I crept away, I knew it hadn’t been my imagination earlier when I wondered if the workers were snickering. They definitely had been, only not quite as loudly as they were now.
I was partway down the hill when I thought I heard someone calling my name. I turned around, and Pia was running toward me.
“Mylos, wait! I’m sorry about my father,” she said, out of breath from trying to catch me. “He can be uno stronzo arogante.”
“It’s okay. I shouldn’t have intruded.”
“It isn’t you…He’s just protective.” She put her arm through mine, and we continued down the hillside. “How are you, Mylos?”
“I’m fine, but I was worried about you.”
Pia stopped walking and studied me. “Why?”
“Your breakup with Paolo. I thought maybe you—”
“Paolo and I didn’t break up. What are you talking about?”
“You know. The argument. And then I saw him a couple of days ago.”
She cocked her head. “A couple of days ago? That’s impossible. Paolo is in Veneto.”
“Unless he has a twin brother, he wasn’t in Veneto three days ago. I saw him.”
Pia’s eyes scrunched. “Where did you see him?”
“I took my mum to the market, and he was there with…someone.”
Her hands went to her hips. “Someone? What does that mean…someone?”
I kept walking. “Never mind.”
“No. You said you saw Paolo with someone. Tell me what you meant. You saw him with a woman?”
I shook my head and continued walking. “My mistake. Like you said, Paolo is in Veneto. It was just someone who looked like him.”
“Mylos!” she shouted after me, but I didn’t stop. This was the first and last time I’d ever get between a woman and another man in my life. Who was it that said not to shoot the messenger? Shakespeare, most likely.
“You cannot say you saw him and then say you didn’t. Either you did or you didn’t.”
“I didn’t.” I walked up to the front door of the farmhouse and stopped. “Goodbye, Pia.”
The next day, my mum informed my father and me that the countess had invited us to join their family for dinner on the following Friday. I wanted nothing more than to beg off, and I would, feigning some sort of illness when the day arrived. I had no interest in seeing Pia…Well, I did, but I didn’t want to argue with her or have her question me further about Paolo. I’d learned my lesson, and I’d not be butting in again. Besides, if they weren’t broken up, he might be there, and that, I knew I couldn’t stomach.
Turned out he was there, as was I. Pia acted as though nothing had happened between us, and while I wouldn’t say she was openly demonstrative toward him, she didn’t appear angry either.
Pia’s father, though, was quite pleased her boyfriend was present, and less so that I was.
He and Paolo spoke in Italian most of the night, no matter how much scolding the countess gave them.
I didn’t care. In fact, if neither said a word to me ever again, that would be perfectly okay by me.
I couldn’t say the same for Pia. The longer the meal stretched on, along with the more wine she drank, the longer the daggers became she shot in her boyfriend’s direction.
“Come with me,” she said shortly after we finished eating the main course. She grabbed my hand and took off running through the vineyard, trailing me—the clambering elephant to Pia’s gazelle—behind her.
When we came out of the other side of the long row of grapevines, the setting sun cast first the shorter wavelengths of violet and blue and, within what seemed like seconds, the longer ones of red, yellow, and orange upon the pool of water in front of us.
“Do you know how to swim?” she asked, slowly unbuttoning the tiny beads on the front of her dress.
“Of course I do, but…”
“I don’t have my togs.”
“You English, so prosaici.”
I stepped closer and wrapped my hands around her wrists, stopping her from undressing further. I turned her in my arms so she faced away from me. “What’s going on, Pia? Is your boyfriend ignoring you?”
She struggled, but I held on tight.
“What do you think will happen if he finds us swimming together? Will he pay attention then?”
“Non so di che cosa stai parlando.”
“You know exactly what I’m talking about,” I said, perhaps surprising her that I understood. I let her go, and she spun back around on me. Before she could speak, I grasped her arms. “Don’t use me to make him jealous.”
I let her go and walked away. Instead of going in the direction of the villa, I turned toward the farmhouse, leaving the beautiful, breathtaking Pia standing alone in the rays of the setting sun.
“Where did you run off to last night?” my mum asked the next morning when I came downstairs.
“I didn’t feel well.”
She raised a brow. “You and Pia left at the same time.”
I loaded my plate with fruit and walked out to the terrazza where my father sat reading.
“Enjoying your time in Italy?” he asked, peering up at me with a smirk.
I shook my head and smiled, like him, noticing that Pia was headed our way.