Sweet Romance For All Ages
GSaving the Brother's Best Friend
“Are you kidding me?” Giada snapped the ticket from her twin brother’s hand and gaped at it.
Except, Giordano wasn’t joking. This was a real airplane ticket to France. And nothing less than three full weeks in Provence. Her heart leaped and she flung herself into his arms. “Thank you so much. You’re the best.”
Her brother smiled but stayed stiff under her emotional outburst. Giada peeked up at him.
She studied him with care. His smile was asymmetrical and it didn’t reach his eyes. When Giordano grinned from his heart, his eyes narrowed into tiny curved lines, like some cartoon figure.
She angled her body back and whacked him in the chest. “Okay, what are you not telling me? What’s the catch?”
Giordano pulled his face into a feigned grimace of hurt. “Why are you always so suspicious and moody? One moment I’m the best and the next you’re accusing me of some hidden agenda.”
His voice wavered at the last words and he backed off a few steps.
Aha, so there was an ulterior motive. He couldn’t look or sound more guilty. Giada put her hands to her hips and stared him in the eye with her brows furrowed. “Giordano Biagi, it’s not for nothing that we’re twins. You know that I know when you’re lying. So spill the beans. Why did you buy me an expensive vacation to Europe? Is it some kind of bribe? Do you need me to cover for you with Dad or Uncle Giovanni?”
“It’s just a graduation gift, Giada. Last year when you finished art school, I didn’t have enough money to give you a special treat. Now I do. Also, I’m not some reckless kid anymore. I don’t need you to shelter me from our parent’s fury.”
She rolled her eyes. “Okay, fine. But don’t blame me for assuming the worst. How many times did you and Gabriel get into trouble and I had to save your butts?”
She had mentioned Gabriel without thinking. His presence was so engrained in her memories that she didn’t realize what she was doing. But as his name rolled off her tongue, her stomach gave an involuntarily twitch.
Why did she have to react this way? It was all water under the bridge. Spilled milk. She wasn’t in love with Gabriel anymore, so she could very well say his name in passing without risking a heart attack.
She focused back on her brother, just in time to catch the small spasm beneath his left eye. What had resonated with him so strongly? Was it the name of their best friend? After all, Gabriel had relatives living in Provence. Was he connected in some way to this crazy, generous gift?
Her brother cleared his throat. “It’s funny that you mention Gabriel.”
Giada narrowed her eyes. Her sixth sense was right. Again. “What’s funny about it?”
Giordano turned away as if he had a sudden urge to admire Giada’s wardrobe, then shifted his attention to her bed.
Why was he avoiding her glance?
She placed the plane ticket on the table, then stepped over to him and shook his shoulders. “Gio, would you care to answer me?”
Her brother finally looked at her and sucked in a breath. “Fine, fine. So the trip to France isn’t just a spontaneous present…I need to ask you a favor.”
Giada scoffed. “Huh, I knew it. But it must be a pretty big one if you bought me a three week vacation in Provence.”
“In fact, it’s really the vacation itself that is the favor.” Giordano rubbed his neck.
Why would he need her to travel to France? Giada had been putting money aside to take a trip there eventually, and Giordano knew it. She cocked her head to the side. “Why on earth would you assume that you need to ask me to go there? I’m more than happy to comply.”
Ever since Giada began to specialize in metal and plaster sculptures, she wanted to visit in person the most exquisite examples of French plastic arts. Sure, she would’ve chosen Paris if it was up to her instead of Provence, but she wasn’t going to look a gift horse in the mouth.
Giordano relaxed. “Ah, that’s good to know. Then you certainly won’t mind some company, will you?”
Giada’s brows shot up. “Company?”
“Yes. In fact, you’ll be traveling with Gabriel. He needs a little moral support while visiting his family.”
Giada’s pulse picked up. She couldn’t travel with Gabriel to see his family. Why should she? Was her brother nuts? And what was this whole nonsense about moral support?
She hadn’t seen Gabriel for the past three months. The mental cleanse she’d begun required her to stay away from him. His constant presence had made it impossible for Giada to forget him. But she couldn’t dwell on her one-sided feelings for all eternity. It wasn’t healthy.
She put a hand at her throat to prevent her voice from coming out high-pitched. Her twin wasn’t aware of the depth of her attraction for Gabriel and… Giada paused mid-thought and gave herself a mental slap.
Past attraction, yes, definitely past attraction.
Anyway, best to keep her brother in the dark. He was too close to Gabriel. If he knew Giada had been in love with their friend, he couldn’t keep it a secret. “I don’t understand what you mean. Gabriel goes to visit his grandmother every year. Why would he need me to tag along?”
Giordano shrugged. “I’m not sure. It might be connected to the half-year sabbatical he took from his job a month ago.”
“A sabbatical?” Giada’s mouth popped open. “Gabriel? That can’t be right. He adores his work.”
“Well, he did. But now he’s on unpaid leave till the end of November.”
“I can’t believe you didn’t pester him to find out his real motive.”
“Giada, we’re guys—don’t forget it.” Giordano chuckled. “I chat with you because you’re my sister, but I’d never share the same things with a guy friend. Not even Gabe. Male friendships don’t work that way.”
Giada chewed on her lip. “But…he’s wanted to be a firefighter ever since he could pronounce the word. What made him do it?”
“No idea.” Giordano shook his head. “He only told me about it afterward. All my questions about why and how were met with a polite but distant refusal. You know how he is when you bug him about something he doesn’t want to talk about.”
Yes, Giada knew it very well. Gabriel wasn’t big on sharing when it came to his own difficulties, that’s for sure.
Could he be in some kind of trouble? Worry snaked through Giada’s heart, and a sudden desire to shield Gabriel from whatever problem he was facing spread in her chest. She had to roll her hands into balls, letting her nails cut into the tender flesh to snap herself out of these overpowering emotions.
What was she doing?
She wasn’t Gabriel’s confidant or girlfriend. She was just his best friend’s twin sister who happened to grow up with them and was around a lot. Okay, maybe that last part was an understatement. She was also friends with Gabriel, as much as Giordano was.
Then again, how many times did Gabriel call her since she’d decided to stay away from him? Zero. So that settled the question as to whether it was her duty to save him from any mess he’d gotten himself into.
She bit her lip. “Gio, I’m sorry for whatever happened to Gabe. But I don’t want to travel to see his family. It’s not my place. Why don’t you go?”
“I can’t.” Giordano clicked his tongue. “I’m about to start that new investigation Uncle Giovanni entrusted me with. It’s the first time I’ll be working undercover for a rich client.”
“Ah, yes. That Ruby case you told me about.” Giada waved with her hand. “Fine, you can’t. Why doesn’t Gabriel ask another one of his pals? I’m sure Stuart or Phil would be happy to get a free vacation.”
Giordano blew his cheeks up, then let the air out slowly. “First of all, it’s not a ‘free vacation.’ Gabriel and I split your travel costs. We did pay for it, you know. Second of all, he needs a female he can trust. Last time I checked, you qualify as such, don’t you? I mean you’re definitely a girl, and you know Gabriel almost as well as I do.”
Giada inhaled slowly. She needed a second to process the information. So Gabriel not only needed her help, but he was so desperate to get it that he’d paid part of her plane ticket? But why did he need a woman at his side?
She twisted her chin up. She had to press her brother more. Giordano definitely knew what was going on. “Yes, I know Gabe. Which also means that I’m capable of sensing that there’s something weird about this whole proposal. You say he wants a female he can trust. For what?”
Giordano bounced his head from left to right. “I don’t understand why you’re so reluctant to help him out. Did he offend you or something?”
Huh, her brother might be a great private investigator, but he certainly wasn’t talented at reading Giada. Maybe it was for the better though.
She shrugged. “No, he didn’t. I just don’t want to get mixed up in something strange. Are you sure you don’t know what’s going on?”
For a split second, Giordano’s lips opened but then closed. He sniffed and said, “Nope. I only know the poor guy seems depressed these days. He has to visit his grandmother and he doesn’t want to do it alone.”
Giada sighed. The idea that Gabriel was sad didn’t leave her as untouched as she wanted her brother to believe. On the contrary. Her protective instincts were brewing.
But she couldn’t fall back into the same trap. How many times had she been the one to smooth out the trouble Gabriel and her brother got themselves into? How many times had she listened to Gabriel complain about his girlfriends or advised him how to improve his relationships? She’d done her fair share of altruism. On second thought, maybe she’d hoped that someday Gabriel would wake up and see her with different eyes.
But that day never came. She’d only hurt herself badly in the process. Enough was enough. She wasn’t anybody’s security blanket anymore.
She steeled herself and met her brother’s expectant grimace. “Well, too bad he’s feeling under the weather. But I’m sure you’ll be able to exchange my ticket and get your money back. I would love to go to France, but on my own terms. So thanks, but no thanks.”
Giordano pursed his lips, bobbing his head back and forth. “Okay, fine. But I told him I was sure you’d want to help. If you don’t, you should tell him this yourself.”
Giada gasped. What? She’d need to call Gabriel to refuse his request? Oh, crumbs. She was hoping Giordano would take on this unpleasant task. After all, it was her brother who’d built up Gabriel’s hopes for her readiness to jump at his call.
She gaped at her brother’s smug smirk. Did he expect her to back off now?
True, Giada hated to disappoint others. She was a people pleaser and not ashamed of it. Wasn’t it nicer to indulge the people she cared about than to fight or contradict them all the time?
But not today. This time, she wasn’t going to follow her gut. She’d stick with the wise voice of her brain, even if it meant she’d need to hear Gabriel’s voice on the phone.
At the thought of his deep baritone, her chest fluttered, but she plastered on a brave smile and looked at Giordano. “Of course, brother. I’ll call him this afternoon and set the record straight, don’t worry.”
“No need to wait that long, Giada.” Her brother’s grin widened and a mischievous glint filled his brown eyes. He pulled out his cell phone and tapped a few times on the screen. Then he peeked up. “You can give Gabriel your answer right away.”
The doorbell echoed through the house.
Giada jerked back, her jaw dropping. What did her brother do? “Gio, don’t tell me that’s who I think it is.”
Giordano winked. “These conversations can’t be done on the phone. Gabriel’s been waiting in the car. He wanted to thank you in person for agreeing to help. But I’m sure he’ll understand that you prefer not to.”
Giada’s heart jumped to her throat. Gabriel was here.
Here. In front of my house.
How was she going to refuse him now? He was her kryptonite. If he asked her to do it with those large grey eyes boring into hers, would she be able to resist?
She gritted her teeth. Yes, she would. There was no way she could spend three weeks together with Gabriel. It’d be the total failure of her cleanse. It would destroy all the work she’d done to reconstruct her fragmented soul.
She gave Giordano a glance that she hoped looked confident. She turned toward the entrance. Her neck throbbed as she approached the door. She filled her lungs with air and blew it out before turning the doorknob.
Arranging her features into a composed expression, she pulled the door open. “Oh, hi, Gabriel. What a pleasure that you dropped by.”
Gabriel shifted on the car seat and glanced at his watch. Giordano had been gone for more than twenty minutes now. Maybe Giada wasn’t as enthusiastic about this plan as his friend anticipated she’d be.
Gabriel sighed and rubbed his neck. He hated to ask this kind of favor from anyone, even Giada, though she was the only person besides Giordano with whom he felt completely at ease. Still, he preferred to take care of his own problems. This time, he had no choice. Not after the stunt his father had pulled.
Would his old man ever learn what it meant to be a responsible adult?
Probably not. If he hadn’t in sixty-seven years, then he wasn’t going to start now.
Why was Gabriel still so eager to help him? His dad never treated him well. No, definitely not well. But he was his father, and the bond of blood was unshakable. At least, in Gabriel’s book.
Gabriel gulped as various unpleasant memories threatened to surface. He shrugged to push them back to where they belonged — in the depth of his soul. He avoided visiting there as much as possible.
Lately, it was getting a bit crowded down there.
He studied the porch. No sign of Giordano. His friend said he’d signal when it was Gabriel’s turn to show up.
Gabriel’s eyes glazed over as he stared at the front door. He closed them to get some relief from the itching sensation.
As soon as he did, he realized it was a mistake.
The flashes of orange flames, the smell of burnt flesh, and the screams assaulted him so abruptly that he let out a cry. His eyelids sprang open.
His breathing hitched. He forced himself to inhale slowly to tame the dizziness. The therapist had warned him that these flashbacks would last for a few months. He’d even given Gabriel some pills, but Gabriel refused to take them. He didn’t want to forget what had happened. No, it was much better to remember, so he’d never be as careless as he’d been that day.
The beep of his cell phone came as a relief. It was one thing to safeguard those traumatic memories and another to be sucked back to the terrifying events once more.
He peeked at the screen and his lips twitched.
“Gabe, I need reinforcements. Giada is being stubborn. Come now.”
Gabriel pulled the key from the ignition and stepped out of the car.
He kicked the pebbles that lined the way to the entrance. Should he really convince Giada to come with him if she didn’t feel like doing it?
But if she refused, he had no backup plan. Did Giordano explain to his sister what Gabriel had in mind?
Heat rose to his cheeks as he walked to her door. He’d been friends with Giada for so long, but asking her to pretend to be his girlfriend might be too much. Even if there was no other woman in his life that he could ask this favor of.
Giordano was convinced it would work. Gabriel snorted. Of course, he would think so. This insane idea was his, after all.
But it wasn’t Giordano who needed to travel across the ocean with Gabriel and put up a three-week long theater show for his family. It was Giada.
As Gabriel lifted his hand to ring, his finger trembled. He clenched his hand into a fist and stomped his foot.
Darn it, Father! This is all your fault.
He gritted his teeth and pressed on the bell. After a minute, the door opened.
Giada’s smiling face appeared at the doorway. “Oh, hi, Gabriel. What a pleasure that you dropped by.”
Her voice was warm, as always, but there was a strange gleam in her eyes.
Gabriel didn’t know why, but as their glances met, his heart gave a thump out of rhythm.
He hadn’t seen Giada for a while now. She always had some urgent matter to attend when he and Giordano made dinner plans. Gabriel didn’t make a big deal out of it; he figured she was just too busy with her sculptures and Oneiros, her atelier.
But now, seeing the new hairdo and the unusually long, dark lashes framing her amber irises, he wondered whether she was seeing someone. That could explain why she looked different. More attractive, more feminine…more…everything.
He shook his head slightly to clear it from the distracting detail of how much plumper Giada’s lips looked as they revealed her white teeth. “Hi, Giada, may I come in?”
Giada stepped back, letting him pass.
Giordano stood in the corridor, leaning his left shoulder on the ecru wall. He signaled something to Gabriel by moving his index finger from left to right in front of his throat, then making small circles in front of his chest.
Gabriel narrowed his eyes. What was he trying to say? It looked as if Giordano had a sore throat or strange bugs under his shirt. But it must be some advice on how to act with Giada.
Before Gabriel could decipher the enigmatic gestures, Giada snapped her head to her brother. “Oh, cut it, Gio. I think Gabe knows what to say, even without your help.” She turned back to Gabriel, pulling her eyebrows in a half-questioning, half-challenging expression. “Don’t you?”
Gabriel swallowed. His throat felt parched all of the sudden.
What was his problem? Why was he behaving this weirdly? It was Giada, for Pete’s sake. Giada. He’d known this girl most of his life. Even if the way she stared at him now made him doubt whether he’d ever truly known her.
No, this was nonsense. Just the guilt worming through his chest for deceiving her and asking a favor he didn’t know how he could repay.
He licked his lips. “Sure, I do.”
Giordano rolled his eyes.
Giada gave Gabriel an encouraging nod. “Well, then let’s move into the room, and you can tell me what you like. My brother hinted that you need some help. From the way he described it, I doubt I’m your best shot. But I’m curious to hear your take on it.”
She moved to the living room and hopped on the sofa, crossing her legs and arms.
Giordano came over and tapped him on the shoulder. “You have your job cut out for you.”
Gabriel answered in a low voice, “I know.”
They walked to the sofa and Giordano sat down beside his sister, while Gabriel chose an armchair facing them.
“I’m listening, Gabe.” She bent forward.
Gabriel sucked in a breath. “I need your help. As Gio must have told you, I’m traveling to Provence this summer.”
Giada nodded. “Like every year. Why would you need me to come with you?”
It was time to repeat the bogus story he’d invented for Giordano. The bitter taste in his mouth almost made him gag. He shouldn’t be keeping his father’s idiocy a secret.
Then he pictured his mother’s pleading eyes and he steeled himself. “Do you remember Aurélie?”
Giada’s mouth popped open and the color drained from her face. She dropped her gaze and shrugged. When she raised her chin, her face was a mask of polite curiosity. “I do, yes. How could I forget your delightful French ex? She used to laugh at me for preferring a piece of stone to carve over a jewel to wear. What about her?”
Gabriel’s stomach tightened. Aurélie was a nitpicker and she didn’t shy away from belittling others when she thought she was right. It was one of the reasons Gabriel had ended things between them. But the irony in Giada’s voice surprised him. Did Aurélie’s teasing hurt Giada that deeply? How did he not realize this before?
“Aurélie is engaged. With my cousin, Jean-Pierre.”
Giordano snorted. “The scumbag. You shouldn’t date the ex-girlfriends of your relatives. It’s gross.”
“It’s not that simple.” Giada threw him an exasperated look “A heart has its own ways and reasons. You can’t just switch feelings on and off.” She paused and her voice became weaker. “Even if it makes you desire the wrong people.”
Gabriel nodded. “She’s right. I don’t mind that they’re together. But they invited me to their official engagement celebration, and my grandmother thinks I can’t go to this event without a date.”
Giada wrinkled her nose. “A date? I thought you needed a travel companion for moral support.”
Gabriel’s eyes flicked to Giordano. So his friend had not only withheld the truth—well Gabriel’s fabricated truth, that is—but led Giada to believe he only needed emotional backing instead of a full-blown charade. “No, I need you to come with me to see Mémère Noëlle as my girlfriend. Uhm..fake girlfriend.”
Giada slammed her hands on the sofa with a loud thump. “You’re crazy. Why don’t you bring a real date? I’m sure if you and Gio go out for a night, you can recruit several willing candidates who won’t need to pretend to like you.”
Pretend to like me? Her last words described the exact task he wanted her to do, but somehow their meaning stung.
Gabriel bit his cheeks from inside. He belonged in a mental institution. Maybe he wasn’t just suffering from mild post-traumatic stress disorder but also from some psychotic episode. Otherwise, why would he feel sorry that his only real female friend didn’t like him as a man?
“Sis, that’s not possible.” Giordano came to his aid. “The chicks get all wound up when you’re just inviting them to a fancy restaurant. Imagine if you told one she should attend a major family event in Europe. You might as well propose to her. No, no. Gabe needs a date who knows he doesn’t have feelings for her and who won’t expect royal treatment after the vacation. He needs you.”
Giada pressed her lips together and stared at her left hand playing with the sofa’s upholstery.
Gabriel found his voice. “Gio’s right. Also, I’m not in much of a go-out mood lately. I’ve had some trouble at work…”
Giada jerked her head up, her eyes darting to his. “Yes, what’s the deal with that, Gabe? Why did you take a sabbatical? Did something happen to you?” Her voice was full of concern.
Gabriel’s chest warmed. For the first time since he’d entered Giada’s house, he recognized her. Giada had a heart of gold, and she was always ready to help others—especially Gabriel and her brother. He shook his head. “Nothing in particular. Just a very stressful year. I needed a break, that’s all.”
He withdrew his gaze because he feared that Giada’s particular gift of reading people would reveal what he was holding back. He didn’t want his friends to feel sorry for him, or worse, tell him the same thing that his colleagues, his mother, and his therapist did—that it wasn’t his fault.
He knew it was.
Giordano shifted closer to his sister and threw his arm around her shoulders. “You see, sis? Gabe’s going through a rough patch. What’s so bad in giving him a little hand with his insane relatives? Don’t you remember his grandmother—Noëeelleeee?” He pinched his nose to mimic Gabriel’s grandmother’s nasal accent. “She’s one tough old lady. If she says Gabe should attend his lousy cousin’s engagement party with a date, then he must comply. Otherwise, she might exclude Gabe from her will. That would be a pity. She’s rich.”
Giada smacked her lips. “Oh, Gio. You’re so materialistic.”
“And you’re the dreamy one.” He nudged her affectionately between her ribs. “But even without the whole money thing, can’t you see why Gabe needs this?”
Gabriel was still studying his hands, but at his friend’s words, he lifted his head. To his surprise, he found Giada looking straight at him.
She tilted her head. “Gabe, do you really need this? Would Noëlle go so far as to exclude you from your future inheritance if you travel there alone?”
Gabriel pushed his feet to the floor to feel more anchored. It was a smart move from Giordano to mention the will. Giada was obviously reconsidering her decision.
The few times she and her brother had met Gabriel’s grandmother, they’d had the chance to witness how Mémère Noëlle threatened to disinherit Gabriel if he didn’t behave as she wanted. It was her go-to argument to convince her grandchild to stay in line.
In truth, Gabriel didn’t care about Noëlle’s money. At least not for his own sake. But he did need her financial help to clean up his father’s mess.
He squared his shoulders. “Yes, there’s a strong chance she would. She thinks it’s a shame that her sister’s grandchild marries before me. She wants me to prove I also have great things going on in my life.” He rubbed his neck with both hands. “It’s kind of difficult to do—given that I’m temporarily out of the job she never even liked, and I’m single, which in Mémère Noëlle’s vocabulary means loser.”
“Well, your grandma would label us all losers then, huh?” Giordano chuckled.
Even Giada giggled at this. Her tense expression softened and her lips drifted towards her ears, making her cheekbones rise. Did she always have these enticing dimples when she smiled?
Gabriel slapped himself mentally for letting his attention wander in this inappropriate direction. Giada was one of his best friends, and just because she looked amazing today, didn’t mean he should be thinking about her differently.
“Yes, Gio, she probably would.” Gabriel arched his brows, glancing at Giada. “So what do you say? Do you want to come to Provence in four days? After the engagement party, I’m sure we’ll be able to sneak in a bit of sightseeing time. I know you never visited the Papal Place in Avignon or the incredible rocky inlets between Marseille and Cassis.”
Giada’s face lit up. “Could we really do that? Maybe even go to Aix-en-Provence?”
“Yes, it’s all within a short driving distance from Mémère’s cottage.” Gabriel bobbed his head enthusiastically.
Why hadn’t he thought of this? He should have portrayed this trip as a journey into the culture of France instead of as a family constraint. After all, he would talk with his grandmother in private, and the rest of time, they could spend traveling and having fun. Giada loved art, and Provence would be perfect for her.
Her brother clapped. “I think Gabriel just described your dream vacation, didn’t he, sis? And it’s all paid for. So what if you need to fake a few kisses with him in front of his folks. I say it’s a once-in-a-lifetime occasion.”
Gabriel’s shoulders twitched. It was likely that they’d need to show some physical affection in front of his family, especially if he wanted Aurélie to believe them, too. But he hadn’t gone as far as thinking about making out with Giada.
His eyes moved over to Giada’s lips. They looked so soft.
He shrugged. What an idiot. If he were to ever kiss Giada, it would be to convince Mémère to grant him some money to pay off his father’s debts, not because her lips looked inviting.
Giada stirred, but her face remained impassive. She appeared to be deciding what to do.
Gabriel held his breath.
“Okay, alright. Whatever. I’m in. I’ll come to Provence with you and pretend to be your girlfriend. But”—she lifted a finger—“only if you make good on your promise of visiting the best sights in the region.”
Gabriel relaxed and grinned. “Of course.”
“Perfect, it’s just like old times.” Giordano tapped on his knees. Then his lips curled down. “Only, now, I won’t be part of this gig.”
Giada rubbed her brother’s arm. “You’ll have fun here, I’m sure. With your new investigation, right?”
Giordano nodded. “You’re right. A true mystery is waiting for me. Also, I’m sure that you two’ll handle this adventure well. You do make a cute couple.” He added the last phrase with a chuckle.
Giada blushed and Gabriel’s pulse accelerated.
Wow, he would need to remind himself constantly why he’d asked Giada to do this favor in the first place. Somehow his body was doing strange things at the moment. Maybe it was due to his exhausted mental state. Perhaps it was the stress his father was putting him under.
But the loud pounding in his heart when he glanced at Giada needed to stop.
Curious to see how this sweet friends to lovers romance enfolds?
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