When an American interning at a fashion house in Rome butts heads with her professor’s surly son, sparks fly!
With her thirties rapidly approaching and a mountain of student debt looming over her, Violet Luciano’s dream of finishing design school and working in fashion has cost her everything. So when she lands an internship at an up-and-coming fashion brand in Rome, she brings her A game to Italy. With nothing left to lose, Violet plans to win the competition among the interns for the ultimate prize — a job at a New York label.
But when a coffee run goes wrong and Violet accidentally destroys a stranger’s laptop, all of the apology Americanos in the world won’t help her. Because it turns out that the man from the café is Matteo, her professor’s eternally grumpy son, who thinks she’s a clumsy American…and maybe a stalker. Their animosity (and undeniable chemistry) grows as together they’re forced to face a summer of chic parties, adventures through Rome and sharing a home…with the person they can’t stand the most.
The more time she spends with him, the more distracted she finds herself. With her chance to win the competition slipping out of her grasp, Violet has to decide whether to say ciao to Matteo — or ciao to her dreams.
“On a scale of zero to heartbreakingly Italian, where would you say that I land?”
Turning my eyes from the architectural wonders to my left and right, I glance over at Marco as we roll our overpacked luggage down a cobblestoned street in Rome. It’s midafternoon and the sun is out in full force, casting a heat and a haze over us that would feel stifling back in New York, but here, it feels lighter. Simmering with possibilities. Snippets of Italian and the buzz of scooters reverberate around and through me like a new favorite song, and it’s all so surreal that it takes real effort to respond to my friend instead of drifting off into a highly elaborate Roman Holiday fantasy instead.
“Are we talking your overall aura or your physical appearance, too?”
“Whole package,” Marco replies, pulling at the collar of his black T-shirt. “Like we just crossed paths, you see me, you take in my vibe and you think to yourself, ‘Hmm… In my humble tourist opinion, this gentleman is clearly this much Italian.’”
“I don’t know,” I answer, giving my suitcase a determined yank as the wheel catches on a stone. “Maybe a five?”
“A five?” he seethes. “Not that I’m trying to sway your decision, but how dare you?”
I stop walking then, my body needing a break even with all the euphoric adrenaline that’s been pumping through me nonstop since we landed two hours ago. I reach into my tote bag and pull out the bottle of water I bought at the airport and all but guzzle it down before speaking again.
“You know what? I’m amending my original answer. You’re an eight. A solid eight, which is a highly respectable score that also allows room for growth.”
Marco reaches out his hand and I pass the water over, giving him the okay to finish it off. He drinks an equally ravenous amount and tosses the empty bottle into a nearby bin. “I’ll accept an eight. At least it’s better than the three-point-seven that you’d pull in.”
“How am I a three-point-seven when I’m biologically half Italian?”
“Yeah, I’d challenge Ancestry.com on that one,” he says. “Your name might be Violetta Luciano but your freckles and complete inability to tan reads as more of a Sinead O’Connor.” I chuckle and make use of the hair tie that’s forever on my wrist, pulling my thick auburn hair into a ponytail as Marco goes on, “By the way, do we know what time Holly is getting in?”
“Not a clue,” I tell him. “I can barely get Holly to acknowledge my existence, let alone keep me abreast of her travel plans.”
“Same here. Maybe we’ll finally win her over now that we’re interning together, though. I mean, come on. Who wouldn’t love us? We’re delightful.”
“We’re somewhat delightful,” I reply. “Borderline absurd but delightful.”
“True, but to be fair, all fashion designers are at least a little absurd. I’d take a cinched, tulle-layered ball gown over a practical mindset any day of the week.”
“Oh, one hundred percent,” I agree.
Marco smirks and we continue down the busy street. It’s teeming with tourists and locals alike, and I’m surprised we don’t bump into anyone. In Manhattan, even a leisurely stroll can turn into limitless rounds of sidewalk chicken, with no one willing to swerve or give the right of way ever. In Italy, people weave in and out of pedestrian traffic like synchronized swimmers on pavement.
The midday riposo clearly works wonders for the soul.
Five minutes later we stop again, having now discovered a picturesque commercial cul-de-sac. There’s a restaurant, a café, a clothing store and a gelato shop, and they’re all wildly tempting in their own ways.
“I need a break,” I tell Marco. “We’re supposed to meet Professor Leoni at her apartment in an hour, so let’s just hang out here until then.”
“Sounds good. I’m going to do some perusing first,” he says, lifting his chin toward the clothing store. “Care to join me?”
“I’m too tired to peruse. I’ll meet you at the café.”
“See you in fifteen.”
He bounces off, still bursting with excess energy, and it’s in moments like this that I’m painfully aware of our age difference. True, we’re only seven years apart, but sometimes the gap between twenty-two and twenty-nine feels immeasurable.
It’s not that I mind being older than most of the people I go to school with. Even now I’m proud of the fact that I’m an adult student. But the downside of it does hit me on occasion, periodically reminding me of just how far behind I am in my life. Of how much harder I need to work to make up for the time I lost.
Pushing that moderately depressing thought aside, I channel my angst into a resolute march forward, making my way toward the al fresco café. I stop to stand just outside the waist-height partition and find that it’s filled to capacity with every table occupied.
Deciding to wait it out, I pull out my phone and do what I always do when I have a few minutes to pass—I look at old pictures of me and Greg. And granted, it’s an incredibly unhealthy go-to, but for all my eccentricities, I’m also a creature of habit.
Scrolling through the photos now, I feel the same as I usually do. Accepting but sad. Uncomfortably comfortable. Crossing an ocean hasn’t changed that. And the strangest part of it is, even though I miss him, I don’t necessarily want Greg back. At least, not right now. I don’t even want to be the girl in the photos. I’m not her anymore. I haven’t been for two years. But I still look at who we were then and for some reason, I can’t leave us behind. Can’t stop myself from thinking that when the time is right, we’ll find each other again. Maybe it’s because we still keep in contact, sometimes constantly texting each other. It’s hard to leave someone in the past when they’re still a lingering part of the present.
Minutes go by and I keep scrolling—taking in photo after photo of the two of us smiling and laughing in our old apartment—until I notice a couple in the café making their way to the exit. I immediately survey the area and find that their empty table is in the direct center of the space. It’s not ideal, but it’s doable.
Desperate not to miss my chance, I power walk into the seating area, doing my best to maneuver myself and my Cadillac-sized suitcase to the open table and offering a copious stream of scuzis and gratzis to everyone I nudge past. Soon enough, I’m only a few feet away. I’m already imagining how moan-inducingly wonderful it’s going to feel to sit in the shade when a mop of blond hair catches my eye from across the square.
My heart pounds as a terrified thrill shoots through me. I lean my body to the right, nearly contorting to get a better look. It can’t be him. I know it can’t. But my eyes stay fixed on the silhouette. Tall and lean with his hair sweeping right. Always right. The direction I’d forever push it when we’d sit around talking or lounging in bed. He turns in my direction and the world tilts on its axis. No, wait—that’s me—I’m tilting—no, I’m falling—I’m straight-up toppling into the café table beside me with all the dead weight of a wrecking ball.
Hello, and welcome to my nightmare.
In the span of three seconds, I’m thrown into a state of sensory overload. I feel a hot, wet surface against my now moist chest, a sickening crunching sound fills my ears and all I can see is a startled but intense pair of brown eyes staring back into mine. I stay focused on them for longer than I should before I turn away, instead looking down as I push myself up from the nearly demolished café table that I’m now sprawled across. All the while I keep thinking to myself, That didn’t just happen. Please tell me that didn’t just happen.
Standing up on shaky legs, my still-stunned eyes dart around the café. Every patron is watching me in some configuration of empathy, shock and terror.
Oh yeah, that fully freaking happened.
My hands shift to my shirt, which is now saturated with strong-smelling coffee. I’m only just starting to mentally recalibrate when my gaze returns to my brown-eyed neighbor. He’s standing and sort of hunched over as he assesses his own damage, wiping at the coffee that’s splattered across his gray button-down and khaki shorts. My horrified gaze pans lower as I spot what I can only assume is his laptop on the ground. It now has a gruesome crack down the center of the screen.
If it were ever possible to vanish into a cloud of smoke like the Wicked Witch of the West, minus the cackle, this would be the time. Unfortunately, no dormant magical powers manifest, and I’m left to deal with the aftermath on my own.
“Oh, my god,” I sputter, compelling myself into action as my neighbor’s eyes once again collide with mine. “I’m sorry. I’m so incredibly sorry. Are you okay? Are you burned?”
He’s looking at me like I’m a feral animal who’s foaming at the mouth, and in my somewhat rabid current state, his concern is warranted. He says nothing.
“I’m sorry,” I try again apologetically. “Parli inglese? I don’t know how to ask if you’re okay in Italian.”
He levels me with a cold stare. “Stai bene.”
“Stai bene?” I echo.
“It means ‘are you alright?’ in Italian.”
And we officially have inglese. At least now I’ll know what he’s saying when he threatens me with legal action.
“Oh good. Great,” I tell him. “So are you stai bene?”
“I’m fine.” The tone of his voice, though decided and deep, sounds far from fine. He straightens up completely then, and I’m surprised by how tall he is. The top of my head just reaches his shoulders, and I have to tilt my chin upward to meet his gaze.
“But I broke your laptop. I’ll pay for it to be fixed or replaced.”
What’s the going black-market rate for spleens in Italy? I spent almost every dollar I had on my plane ticket over, and my airways instantly tighten as I try to think of how I can pull the money together for a new computer.
“It’s fine,” the man says, pulling me out of my rising panic. He runs a hand through his dark brown hair, pushing it to the left. His facial hair is the same shade of dark brown, walking the line between scruff and a full beard. It gives off a distinct lumberjack boardroom kind of vibe and I def don’t hate it. Too bad the glare he casts my way leaves very little doubt that he absolutely hates me.
Squatting to pick up his laptop, he takes in the mangled screen and tries not to wince as he attempts to close it. It’s no longer wholly connected, so the top half folds awkwardly without closing all the way. He stands and slides it into an over-the-shoulder case, which is also splattered and stained. Apparently, nothing was spared from my caffeine carnage.
Wanting and needing to smooth the situation out further, I step around the wreckage that is his table and gesture to mine. “Please sit with me. And let me get you a new coffee. It’s the least I can do after destroying your afternoon, if not your whole life.”
At my words, he glances around the café, either looking for an escape or stalling. Both options are understandable. My eyeline slides a little sideways, too, discreetly searching for Greg across the square. He isn’t there. Of course he isn’t. My overactive imagination is a menace, and this humiliating interlude was all for nothing.
I turn to refocus on my neighbor, giving him an innocent yet pleading smile.
Just sit with me, dude. Put me out of my misery.
I’m entirely expecting a staunch refusal when he stiffly says, “I wouldn’t want to intrude.”
“You wouldn’t be intruding,” I tell him eagerly. “If you don’t sit with me, I’ll torture myself about this for at least a year. Maybe two.”
I almost laugh at myself. Two years? Yeah, right. My overanalyzing ass will be reimagining and reliving this unforgettable horror until the end of time.
He appears to sense my obvious turmoil and lets out a defeated breath. “Yeah, okay,” he answers. “And forget about my laptop. I was planning on getting a new one.”
It’s probably a lie, but I’m still grateful. He begrudgingly sits down next to me, and I quickly sit as well, straightening my posture like I’m gearing up for a job interview.
“So,” I say in the most chipper voice I can muster, “I should introduce myself. My name is Violet.”
He makes eye contact but in no way returns my smile. “I’m Matt.”
“It’s very nice to meet you, Matt.” I then initiate a stiff business handshake and he drops my hand so fast that you’d think I casually licked my palm right before we made contact. I’m not quite sure how to cope with his barely veiled contempt, but thankfully, a waiter appears and asks what we would like. I order a cappuccino, and Matt asks for an Americano. The man walks away with a grimace, which I can only assume is due to my making such a scene a minute ago.
“So I’m batting a thousand in the popularity department today,” I joke.
“Don’t worry about Giuseppe,” Matt says evenly. “I come here all the time and he’s only ever scowled at me.”
“Yeah, but you seem like someone who doesn’t particularly mind scowling.”
The thought somehow slips out of me, and I’m hoping it didn’t come off as offensive. Matt only shrugs.
“I’d rather a scowl than a fake smile.” He looks at me pointedly and my permi-grin falters.
M-kay, Matt. Let’s not be an ass.
“Good manners cost nothing,” I answer easily.
Matt sits back a degree in his chair. “I think you can be polite without being fake. Why should I alter my personality to make other people feel better? I used to do that, and it was draining. And people still didn’t like me.”
I consider personally attesting to his last statement but stop myself. Instead, I say, “I’m sure there’s a difference between altering your personality and presenting yourself in a way that doesn’t come off as rude.”
The corner of Matt’s mouth pulls up in the smallest hint of a smile. “Is that how I come off to you? As rude?”
More like a disproportionally handsome bridge troll, but maybe it’s best not to mention that.
I move the tips of my fingers over the surface of the table, trying to concoct another noncommittal answer before returning my hand to my lap. “Not necessarily,” I go on to tell him. “I guess I could say that you come off as honest.”
“As honestly rude?” he teases. I somehow end up smirking despite myself.
“Perception is subjective, isn’t it?”
“It is,” he agrees. “For example, to some people rudeness can be categorized by someone being aloof, and to others it could be someone’s flagrant destruction of personal property.”
“I apologized about your laptop!” My near-shout surprises even me. This isn’t how I operate. I’m a people pleaser. I need people to like me. I don’t yell at strangers, especially strangers I’m trying to appease. Matt seems amused and something about him makes me itch. I want to punch him, but I also kind of want to make him laugh. It’s disconcerting. Taking a breath and forcing myself to relax, I say, “I’m sorry. It was rude of me to raise my voice.”
Matt smiles then. Smiles like he means it, and the result is jarring. Bridge trolls aren’t supposed to smile like that. At least, not unless they’re about to devour their innocent prey.
Is Matt about to devour me?
Where in the hot hell did that come from? I inwardly scold myself and shake off the ludicrous thought, sitting up straighter and clearing my throat.
“I really am sorry about your computer,” I go on. “And about your coffee.”
“You apologize too much.”
Matt’s eyes and tone are filled with arrogance, and every muscle in my shoulders tenses. Maybe I need everyone in the world to like me, except him.
He tilts his head a little. “You can say what you’re thinking, you know. I won’t mind.”
I bet he wouldn’t. What am I to him? Nothing. And it’s with freeing clarity that I realize I feel the exact same way about him. I answer in a voice that’s pure calmness. “I was just thinking that I’ve never been more okay with someone hating me in my entire life.”
Matt smiles again and it’s exceedingly irksome how I’m pleased by it.
“There. Now, don’t you feel better?” he asks. It isn’t lost on me that he doesn’t deny my assumption.
“A little,” I admit. “And for the record, you don’t have to worry about me falling into you again in the future. I’m typically not a clumsy person. I’m actually very agile.”
“I wouldn’t dream of questioning your agility.”
“It’s just that I thought I saw my ex right before I bumped into you, and I guess that somehow interfered with my spatial reasoning.”
“Really?” Matt asks, sounding surprisingly interested. He cranes his neck to look around the café. “Is he still here?”
“He’s gone,” I quickly tell him. “It wasn’t even him. I just think I see him sometimes.”
He gives me an inquisitive look at my admission, and I can tell he’s trying to figure me out. Good luck with that. If I’m a puzzle, then seventy-five percent of my pieces are lost under a couch somewhere, covered in dust and crumbs.
“So your ex just pops up from time to time like a ghost? Does that mean you have unfinished business?”
I can’t be certain if his question is genuine or if he’s trying to set me up for a dig, but either way I don’t take the bait.
“No offense,” I tell him, “but I’d rather not set the stage for an existential discussion with you. Something tells me your views on love are apocalyptic at best.”
“Post-apocalyptic, but never mind that. Can I see a picture of him?”
His expression is almost boyish and I’m instantly suspicious. “Why would you want to see a picture of my ex?”
“I’m curious,” he says simply.
I consider it for all of two seconds. “No, I’m not showing you a picture of him.”
“Fine, don’t show me.” He leans his elbows on the table, looking off in the distance, and for some childish reason it gets under my skin. I pause for several moments before I pull my phone out of my bag with a huff. I don’t want to show him any of my personal pictures, so I open Greg’s Instagram page instead.
Matt takes the phone and inspects the images. “I don’t like him,” he says.
“Color me shocked.”
He looks more closely at the screen, then angles the phone away to get an alternative view. “His eyes are off-putting. He looks like a creepy Victorian doll you’d find in a boarded-up attic.”
“Greg’s eyes are his best feature, you monster.” I’d love to say my rebuke isn’t defensive, but it absolutely is.
“And his name is Greg,” he scoffs. “Irredeemable. Though, considering he’s a murderous marionette, I guess it fits.”
“Okay, show-and-tell is over.” I go to pull the phone away, but Matt leans to the side, keeping it just out of my reach.
“Wait. Can I see your profile, too?”
“Why?” I ask.
“Because I think it will help me to understand you better. Plus, I want to see how your pictures compare to Greg’s. His level of commitment to hiking photos is staggering.”
I slump in my chair and weigh the pros and cons. Granting his request should at least keep him entertained until my apology coffee arrives, so I eventually concede. “Check, then,” I say.
He clicks the icon to return to my profile, which is currently signed in to my personal, private account, and not my public design page where I feature my work.
“Tell me,” Matt says after a few seconds of scrolling. “Did you always share your account with your cat, or did it evolve into this over time?”
“It’s been a mutual endeavor since the beginning,” I assure him. “Theodore may be my sister’s cat, but he and I are essentially one being.”
“Clearly,” he says. “He’s an American shorthair?”
I can’t conceal the shock that appears on my face. “How did you know that?”
“I used to have a cat. She was an American shorthair, too.”
“Really?” I ask. “What was her name?”
Matt continues to scroll through my photos. “Blanche.”
“Blanche?” I echo with unexpected delight. “I love it. I bet she and Theo would have been great friends.”
Matt ignores the phone for a second and glances up at me without his token scowl. It doesn’t last. Soon enough, he returns to judging my photos and I resume counting the seconds until I can leave. Blanche was a strong lady to deal with this wet rag on a daily basis.
“You should post more pictures of yourself,” Matt suddenly says. “Don’t you want Greg to see you living your best life?”
“Why would I care about that?” I ask.
“Because his profile is first in your story suggestions. You can’t deny the algorithm.”
I fold my arms across my chest. “Believe it or not, I don’t use social media to passive-aggressively troll my exes.”
“I find that hard to believe. Plus, I’m pretty sure that exact purpose was written in Instagram’s founding mission statement.”
My temples twitch in the early stages of a migraine as Matt continues to look through my photos. “You sound like a super unhealthy person. I bet your page is an ominous wall of cryptic quotes.”
“I don’t have an active presence on social media,” he says, handing the phone over to me.
“Said every Netflix true-crime murderer ever.”
Matt almost chuckles. “We should take a picture together to break up your grid. I may be soulless, but I’m shockingly photogenic.”
“I don’t want to break up my grid,” I tell him sharply.
“Fine, forget I suggested it. I just thought it would be interesting to see if Greg reacted to it. Tell me more about Theo. Is it okay if I call him Theo?”
Why do I seem to emotionally regress with every one of Matt’s goading comments? True, Greg and I haven’t texted in a couple of months, which is somewhat long for us, but not entirely uncommon. It hardly warrants a photo intervention. Though, I suppose I should document this horrendous encounter for posterity purposes.
“Fine, let’s take a picture.” Shaking my head, I lift my camera and line up the shot. Matt’s barely in it. “Scooch in, but don’t crowd me. We want to look friendly, not romantic.”
He moves closer and drapes his arm over the top of my chair. “Zero risk of that happening.”
“Aw,” I reply with mock regret. “So you mean this isn’t our meet cute? I’m devastated.”
“I’m sure you are. Here, let me hold the camera. My arms are longer.”
I hand him the phone and a second later we both lean into each other. I should feel self-conscious, but oddly enough, I don’t.
“Alright, let’s go with a casual, sitting-in-a-café-enjoying-the-day kind of scene.”
“That’s a word-for-word description of what we’re already doing.”
“Are we?” I counter dryly. “Are we enjoying the day, Matt?”
“Good point,” he replies. “Lucky for you, I have experience in theater. I was background student number seven in my high school production of Grease, so appearing civil while sitting next to you should be manageable.”
“Well, let’s see those acting chops, Daniel Day Lewis. Say cheese and try not to look morbid.”
I take a breath and smile as Matt snaps the photo. A second later he pulls his arm in and we both check out his handiwork.
“Look at that,” I say with a tenor of surprise. “And here I thought vampires didn’t show up in pictures.”
Matt smirks. “I like it. We look like two people in the same friend group who put up with each other but then drink too much at engagement parties and birthdays and ruin Friendsgiving. Lots of rage bubbling just beneath the surface.”
“That’s a substantial amount of detail,” I tell him.
“I’m a writer,” he says. “It’s kind of my thing.”
I raise my eyebrows as I look up at him, faintly impressed. “I work in the arts, too.” If he’s impressed by me, he doesn’t show it. I try not to give him the stink eye as I return my attention to the picture. “So then, writer extraordinaire, what should the caption say? Do I specifically have to mention you?”
“You could nonchalantly mention me. Something understated. Say I’m like a newly released Adele song morphed into human form.”
I bark out a laugh. “It’s good to know that on top of all your other charming qualities, you’re also delusional.” I think for a second before typing When in Rome…#wanderlust.
I show it to Matt and he gives me a shrug. “Not terrible,” he concedes.
I grin and press Share. “Done. A smiling photo of you is now in existence. How does it feel?”
“Like I just mass texted a nude photo of myself. You should delete it.”
I shake my head. “Too late. It’s already on the cloud. Plus, this Insta-farce was your idea.”
“It was more for you than me. Now you’ll have a point of reference when you doodle pictures of me in your dream journal.”
I think about elbowing him in the chin, but ultimately decide not to do my elbow the disservice. “You’re insufferable,” I tell him.
“The feeling’s mutual.”
We’re two seconds away from glaring each other into oblivion when someone behind us clears their throat. We glance around and up to find Marco curiously looking down at the two of us, who are still nestled together in our picture pose.
“I have the sneaking suspicion that I’ve missed something important in the last twenty minutes,” he says.
Snapping back to reality, I scoot my chair away from Matt until I’m sitting at a respectable distance. “It’s actually a very funny story,” I tell Marco. “I’ll explain it to you later.”
“Um, yeah, you will.”
“Right,” I say, promptly standing and smoothing out my only-just-drying shirt. “And on that note, Matt, it was an absolute joy to meet you. We should totally do this again sometime.”
He takes in my overly feigned sweetness with bland acceptance. “I’d rather not.”
“Took the words right out of my mouth.” I grab my luggage and give it a pull, hoping to leave less mayhem during my exit than I did during my entrance.
Of course the waiter returns with our drinks at that exact moment, and I dig into my bag to pull out a bill for ten euros, which I place onto Matt’s side of the table.
“This should cover the coffee. Arrivederci.”
“Give my best to Theo,” he says as I step away, hastily moving toward the exit.
Marco follows as we drag our luggage along, and we’re safely out of the café when he suddenly starts to cough.
“Are you okay?” I ask, turning around to face him.
“Yeah, sorry,” he answers, moving his hand to his throat. “The air was just so thick with sexual tension between you and Matt that I’m having trouble breathing.”
I roll my eyes and continue down the street, heading for the taxi stand on the next block. “The only thing hanging in the air between Matt and me was unbridled animosity.”
“Yeah, right,” Marco replies. “I spied on you guys for three whole minutes before I came over and if I wasn’t concerned that you’d get locked up abroad for having very public hate sex, I wouldn’t have come over at all.”
I consider telling Marco that I’d sooner do the backstroke naked in a pool of piranhas before having any form of sex with Matt, but I can see from the look in his eyes that he’s ready to debate this topic for no less than an eternity.
Accepting that nothing will placate him, I settle for offering, “What can I say? Never a dull moment with me.”
He scoffs as we continue moving down the thankfully noisy street. “Don’t I know it.”