Why didn’t I pay more attention to the study of Italian?
That was the first thing that popped into my head, which was, in hindsight, completely absurd. One would have thought an eminently proper woman like myself would have first been shocked by the sight of a naked man swimming off the boulder-strewn, pebbled beach—the private beach—that was part of the property that had been reserved for me for Christmas, and two weeks beyond, on the coast of southern Italy. Certainly I could see no more than a head bobbing in the water, but given the stack of neatly folded clothing on the beach—my beach—it was obvious the man was no longer wearing anything of substance. Or anything at all.
It wasn’t as if I’d never seen a naked man before, although it had been some time, as my husband, David, Lord Redwell, had died three years ago. Nor had David been prone to complete nudity even if, on occasion, it could not be avoided. Not that I had wished to see my husband naked, of course. That would have been highly improper and far too, well, adventurous. Adventure was not in my nature, although admittedly I was embarking upon what would be my first adventure of any kind. It was all rather exciting, and I am still proud of myself that I stood my ground and went through with it.
Nonetheless, I had not expected said adventure to include a naked man swimming in the waters off the beach, which for Christmas, and two weeks beyond, was for all intents and purposes my property. And I, Portia, Lady Redwell, did not intend to stand for it.
“Mi scusi, signore,” I called.
He ignored me, or perhaps didn’t hear me, and continued, his naked arms flashing in and out of the water with a relentless precision. Which did seem to indicate he swam more for the purposes of physical exertion rather than to delight in the rich blue-green waters of the Tyrrhenian Sea. I myself fully intended to venture into the sea during my stay, perhaps even as far as my knees, and had acquired a bathing dress for that very purpose. I did not know how to swim, and it had never seemed that lack of knowledge was a great void in my education. Still, at the moment, with the balmy breeze and beckoning waters, I did rather regret that deficit in my education, as it would have been quite delightful to fling my clothes aside and leap into the water. The weather, however, was far cooler than I had expected, although not nearly as cold as London in December. I had it in my head that this region of Italy would be more temperate, even tropical, and that was not the case. I was fairly certain the sea was not as welcoming as it appeared. Not that I would ever have done such a thing anyway.
My trespasser swam parallel to the beach in a southerly direction. It was probably too much to hope that he would continue on in that direction forever and I should not have to confront him and inform him in as firm a manner as possible that for Christmas, and two weeks beyond, he was not welcome to use my beach as an embarkation point for his aquatic activities. But, given he had left his clothes here, he obviously meant to return.
I tried again, raising my voice in a most unladylike manner. “Mi scusi!”
Again, he paid no notice, and as he was now a considerable distance down the shore, it was futile to continue to attempt to attract his attention. Besides, after Mi scusi, signore, I had no idea how to say what needed to be said. My French was adequate, my Spanish acceptable, but with the exception of a few pertinent phrases, my Italian was almost nonexistent. Unfortunately, languages did not come easily to me, and I spent a great deal of time during my school years avoiding the study of them. Which was foolish, as who did not hope to one day visit all those countries beyond France and Spain? I was exceptionally shortsighted in my youth, a trait I feared lingered today.
The gentleman’s head was now little more than a speck in the distance. I heaved a resigned sigh, then carefully sat on one of the many boulders dotting the small beach to wait for my intruder to return. It was surprisingly comfortable. I could have climbed back up the treacherous little path that wound its way down the cliff from the villa and sent a servant to deal with the man, which would have been the proper thing to do, but I wasn’t quite ready to face the climb. It was awkward enough to make my way down here in my navy blue-and-white striped walking dress. I had never before questioned the current fashion that dictated the necessity of a bustle, but that path was enough to turn anyone away from the latest style. Besides, this tiny beach, with boulders arranged as if by an expert gardener for the best possible scenic effect, and the sea beyond so vivid in color it was very nearly unimaginable, was entirely too enchanting to abandon. I had arrived a scant half an hour ago after spending the last week traveling from England to what I had begun to see as my sanctuary. I was not about to let some man intrude on my private adventure.
My gaze drifted off toward the horizon and the fishing boats far in the distance. Not that this had started out to be either an adventure or private. My Aunt Helena and I were to come to Italy together for Christmas, as most of the family was otherwise occupied. I also knew Aunt Helena’s efforts to find me a new husband would only intensify during the festivities surrounding Christmas, and I was cowardly enough not to wish to face that. I was, as well, weary of it all. I sorely needed a holiday away from expectations and well-meaning intentions. Not that I didn’t wish to marry again—I did—but I preferred to find a husband myself rather than have one thrust upon me.
However, the moment I said I planned to spend Christmas in Italy, my aunt announced, with a fair amount of satisfied glee, that she too had always wanted to spend Christmas on foreign shores and wasn’t it too perfect that her dear friend Lady Wickelsworth had a villa to let on the outskirts of the small town of Sorrento across the bay from Naples? Perfect was not the word I would have used. Furthermore, I had it in my head to go much farther south, perhaps to Palermo. Without warning, my escape became Aunt Helena’s holiday, and she took over the arrangements with unbridled enthusiasm.
But when we stopped in Paris, we encountered an acquaintance who wasted no time in telling us she had heard one of Aunt Helena’s sons, my cousin Sebastian, had taken a wife. I could have told her, and perhaps I should have, that it was utter nonsense, but it was not my story to tell. My aunt and late uncle raised me, along with their seven children, after my parents died, and I believed this was the first time in my entire life that I shocked my aunt by doing what was not merely unexpected, but not entirely proper. I firmly informed her that she was certainly welcome to return to England, but I would not. I had planned to spend Christmas in Italy, and Italy was where I intended to be. Imagine a woman traveling to a foreign country accompanied only by her maid. Up until a few days ago, I certainly couldn’t.
I credited, or blamed, the influence and example of my two dearest friends for my momentary aberration of throwing caution to the winds. They had always been far more adventurous than I. Julia, the new Lady Mountdale, had been forced to take drastic and potentially scandalous steps when her finances reached a deplorable level, although one might have also called her courageous. Of course, Julia really had little choice, in contrast to Veronica, Lady Smithson, who nearly always sacrificed the appearance of propriety to do exactly as she wished. Veronica believed women should be independent if they so desire. They should not be prohibited from joining organizations where similarly qualified gentlemen were granted membership, and they should absolutely be given the vote. She also felt women, particularly those of independent means, should marry only if they so wished and not because society expected it of them. She saw nothing wrong with a woman choosing to be a mistress rather than a wife, which I found appalling. Veronica’s views about the relationships between women and men were truly scandalous, and as her dear friend, it was my responsibility to keep her opinions to myself. I had no idea how she came to her outrageous way of thinking. Nor did I have any idea how three such disparate women became the closest of friends. Yet we did, and I was grateful. They were the sisters of my soul, if you will, and I cherished them.
“Chiedo, signoro, perdono,” a male voice called, and my attention snapped back to the swimmer. While my mind had wandered, he had turned back toward my beach and now trod water no more than twenty feet or so from the shore.
The sea around him sparkled with the light of the late afternoon sun. He was too far away to distinctly make out his features, but his wet hair appeared dark, and I had, of course, noticed his well-muscled arms. If I was a fanciful sort, I would have likened him to a Roman god emerging from the seas. But I am not usually fanciful, and he was not, thank God, emerging.
“Questo è imbarazzante, ma io sono nudo in questo momento,” he continued. “Se vuoi essere così gentile da prendere il vostro permesso, vorrei venire fuori dall’acqua e recuperare i miei vestiti.”
Oh lovely. I had hoped, given his folded clothes were more Saville Row than rustic Italian, that he would be from one of those countries whose language I could, however vaguely, comprehend. I had absolutely no idea what he had just said. I had an Italian phrase book precisely for moments like this that I had intended never to be without, but I had completely forgotten it in my eagerness to come down to the beach. I had even abandoned Margaret, my maid, in my haste, assuring her that someone would see her to our rooms. One would think I’d never seen the water before. But this was different. This was Italy, and I was, for the first time, an independent woman. An independent woman who had not expected to encounter anyone.
“Mi hai sentito, signora?” he called again. “Vorrei uscire dal acqua e recuperare i miei vestiti. Vi avverto, farò esattamente questo in un minuto.” Irritation rang in his voice, as well as a certain amount of arrogance. But then, Roman gods did tend to be arrogant, or so I’d read.
Nonetheless, it was most annoying. He had no reason to be either arrogant or irritated, as I was in the right. He was no more than an intruder, a trespasser. One of those sorts who came to a party uninvited.
I rose to my feet and ran through my limited Italian vocabulary. Neither How much?, Where is the train station? nor I would prefer tea, thank you was appropriate. There was nothing to be done then but try to muddle through as best I could.
“Signore,” I began. “This, questo. . .” I stretched my arms out in an overly dramatic gesture to indicate the beach, feeling somewhat grand as I did so. He might be a god, but I was a subject of Her Majesty, Queen Victoria, and not about to be intimidated. “Is, è, private, privato propertyo.” Understand? “Comprehende?”
“Privato propertyo?” The swimmer stared. “Privato propertyo?”
Apparently, he did not understand Italian. I disregarded the thought that it wasn’t the language he didn’t understand so much as my version of it.
“Therefore. . .” I indicated the pile of clothes. “You may collect, collecto, your. . .” How did one say clothes? “Your. . .”
“Il vestiario or il abbigliamento,” he said. “Either are correct.”
“You speak English!” The momentary relief that I did not have to continue to flounder in the uncharted waters of Italian was swept aside by the realization that my trespasser was every bit as much a subject of Her Majesty as I. “And you’re British!”
“And I’m cold!” he shouted.
“You should have thought of that before you trespassed on my beach, tore off your clothes and flung yourself into the water,” I said in my loftiest manner.
He paused, and while he was still not close enough to be seen properly, I would have wagered a great deal that he was clenching his jaw and counting to ten in that way men had of trying to control their annoyance.
“I did not tear off my clothes, nor do I fling.” His tone was restrained, as if he were trying to keep his voice level. It must have been most difficult while speaking loud enough to be heard. Knowing I had annoyed him struck me as a tiny victory. “And while I was swimming, I did not notice the cold. Now, however, it is most uncomfortable, and I would like to get out of the water.”
“Then you should certainly do so, but not here. This,” I said firmly, “is a private beach.”
“Madam.” He had the sound of a man nearing the end of his patience. “Forgive me for being overly direct, but I am freezing portions of my body which should never be this cold, and I should like to get out of the water before I turn completely blue. Unfortunately, I cannot do so with you standing there, as I have no clothes on.”
I shrugged. “You should have thought of that too.”
“Probably.” He started toward the shore, his bare shoulders emerging from the water. “You might prefer to turn around, in the interest of propriety—”
“I daresay you abandoned propriety along with your clothes.” I sniffed, although he did earn credit for folding them.
“As you said, it is a private beach.” He continued to make his way toward the shore, the water now halfway down his chest. The oddest frisson of excitement shivered through me, which was absurd. I had grown up with four male cousins, and men, regardless of age, being the kind of creatures they were, were never as completely discreet as one would hope. Besides, I had been married. I had seen a bare chest before. Admittedly, I had never seen a stranger’s finely chiseled bare chest before. He must do a great deal of swimming.
“I would suggest you stop at once.” I picked up his pile of clothing, and he paused, the water now lapping at his waist. “I shall throw these to you, and you may dress where you are.”
“That may well be one of the stupidest ideas I have ever heard,” he said sharply. “First of all, I doubt that you can throw anything, let alone something with no real heft to it, this far and certainly not with any accuracy.”
“You may have a point.” I’d never been particularly good at throwing or athletics of any kind.
“Secondly, when you throw my clothes and they fail to reach me and sink to the bottom of the bay, I will still need to get out of the water.” His eyes narrowed. “And I will still be naked.”
Yet another point. “Very well, then.” I placed his clothes on a large rock on the edge of the tiny beach, then returned to the boulder I’d been sitting on. I turned away from him and crossed my arms over my chest. “You may come out now.”
“I already have,” he said, his voice considerably closer than I expected. I heard his footsteps behind me moving toward where I’d left his clothes.
It struck me that it might have been unwise to wish to confront this stranger myself. After all, he could have been a murderer or kidnapper, or worse. But he was an Englishman, and even at nothing more than a glance, one could tell his clothes were of excellent quality, so he was more than likely a gentleman. I didn’t feel the least bit apprehensive, although I probably should have. Indignation apparently bolstered one’s courage.
“Privato propertyo,” he muttered amidst the rustling of his clothes. “Was that your attempt at Italian?”
I could have lied, but it seemed pointless. “I am not well versed in Italian.”
“Obviously.” He snorted.
“I don’t know why everyone can’t simply speak English.”
“As convenient as that might be for you, the rest of the world would not agree. What were you trying to say anyway?”
I blew a resigned breath. “I was trying to say this beach is private property.”
The rustling stopped for a moment, then he laughed.
“You do realize Italian is not as simple as just adding a vowel to the end of the word?”
“Private property would be proprietà privata.”
“Thank you. Now I know how to tell you this is private property—proprietà privata—and you are trespassing.”
He laughed again. It was a nice enough laugh, I suppose, and yet it set my teeth on edge.
“Exactly what in my statement do you find so amusing?” I asked as coldly as I could.
“Only the fact that you are at once right and so very wrong.” Amusement lingered in his voice.
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