A Portrait of Emily Price

portrait-of-emily-price-jpeg Art restorer Emily Price has never encountered anything she can’t fix—until she meets Ben, an Italian chef, who seems just right. But when Emily follows Ben home to Italy, she learns that his family is another matter . . .

Emily Price—fix-it girl extraordinaire and would-be artist—dreams of having a gallery show of her own. There is no time for distractions, especially not the ultimate distraction of falling in love.

But Chef Benito Vassallo’s relentless pursuit proves hard to resist. Visiting from Italy, Ben works to breathe new life into his aunt and uncle’s faded restaurant, Piccolo. Soon after their first meeting, he works to win Emily as well—inviting her into his world and into his heart.

Emily astonishes everyone when she accepts Ben’s proposal and follows him home. But instead of allowing the land, culture, and people of Monterello to transform her, Emily interferes with everyone and everything around her, alienating Ben’s tightly knit family. Only Ben’s father, Lucio, gives Emily the understanding she needs to lay down her guard. Soon, Emily’s life and art begin to blossom, and Italy’s beauty and rhythm take hold of her spirit.

Yet when she unearths long-buried family secrets, Emily wonders if she really fits into Ben’s world. Will the joys of Italy become just a memory, or will Emily share in the freedom and grace that her life with Ben has shown her are possible?

Excerpt from A Portrait of Emily Price by Katherine Reay

Piccolo. The restaurant matched its name—a tiny and delicate white stucco building with a short, neat brick walk leading from its front door to the parking lot.

It’s wilted green awning and window boxes filled with equally droopy flowers made it look worn and comfortable—completely at odds with the man flashing his eyes between his watch and me.

I pulled a couple inches farther into the parking space, dabbed on lip gloss, and hurried to the restaurant’s front door. Joseph had already pulled it open.

“Thank you for letting me follow you,” I said. “Chicago is nothing like this; it’s built on a grid system. I had no idea Atlanta had so many trees and hills and winding roads . . . But you didn’t need to bring me to dinner. Not that I don’t appreciate it.” I pressed my lips shut. It was time to stop talking.

“It’s your first night in town, and my aunt and uncle own this place. If you want to feel welcome in Atlanta, this is where you come.”

I smiled. Despite the invitation, nothing about Joseph Vassallo felt welcoming. After knowing him for all of five minutes, I suspected it would take a good hair day, flawless makeup, and four-inch heels to comfortably stand next to this man. But today, after a thirteen-hour drive and only a Dairy Queen Blizzard as sustenance, I was the poker-playing-dog-set-on-velvet next to his Michelangelo, complete with lilting Italian accent.

He escorted me into the restaurant with a hand at the small of my back and imperious nods to the waitstaff. A petite, dark-haired woman darted across the dining room, and Joseph’s mask dropped as his first genuine smile broke free.

“You didn’t tell me you were coming tonight!”

He laughed, then bent and kissed her cheeks, one then the other in quick succession. “Surprise.” He gestured to me. “Zia Maria, meet Emily Price. She’s the insurance restorer from Chicago I told you about, renting studio space.”

“Alone. So far to come.” She clucked and bustled us to a table. “Sit. You need a good meal.”

Joseph raised an I told you so eyebrow to me.

She soon settled us with water and a plastic carafe of wine, forbade us to order, promised us the chef’s best, and left us. I looked around the restaurant, not knowing what to say and too worn to give it much thought. The silence stretched.

“Zia Maria said you had company.”

My head spun back. To a man kneeling at the table. Oh my . . . There are two of them.

Fully aware I must look like a bobblehead, I couldn’t help myself. Back and forth, and again, back and forth . . . There were two of them. Both tall. At least the one kneeling beside me looked as though he must be as tall as Joseph. His long fingers gripped the edge of the table. Yes, tall. And handsome. Just that same kind. The right kind—the dark, lean kind with a four o’clock shadow because five o’clock would be too de rigueur. The guy you watch walking down the plane aisle, hoping he’ll sit next to you. Yet he never does. He sits right behind you—with his wife.

And what was even better, this guy had no clue how handsome he was. You could tell by his eyes. Eyes never hide and never lie. His danced with laughter and no awareness at all that I was melting right before him. But the other? I glanced over and studied his eyes a moment. Joseph knew.

“You must be brothers?” I asked them both.

Joseph lifted a single brow, but its meaning wasn’t so clear this time. It felt almost as if the question required thought. “He’s six years younger.” His English was so smooth—all the right words and contractions, yet eking out the curves of his native Italian.

Joseph faced his brother. “Ben, meet Emily Price. Her insurance company is renting her a worktable in my studio for the next couple weeks.” He glanced back to me. “House fire in Buckhead, yes?”

“Yes.” I nodded and turned to Ben myself. “I do insurance restoration. This house has some damaged walls, a mural, and other pieces I’ll put back together.”

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Ben’s smile called out an answering one from me, except I could feel mine stretch too far from ear to ear. And his hands . . . One reached out and held mine. “We are both visitors. You at Joseph’s and me here. I have the better deal. I get to play in a kitchen.” The last part was lobbed to his brother.

“As long as you keep your play to the kitchen.” Joseph’s murmur killed my grin.

Ben’s grip tightened as he shot his brother a look. I did the same.

“No. Not her.” Joseph drew back, surprised. He flashed his gaze to me. “Not you. Sorry.” He returned to Ben, who sported a You stepped in that all by yourself grin.

I was right. There were two of them.

Katherine Reay's Portrait of Emily Rice
Katherine Reay’s Portrait of Emily Rice

Joseph continued, tilting toward his brother. “You should have said no. You say you know, but you don’t. You’re meddling in things you don’t understand.”

I thought of my sister, Amy, who often accused me of the same thing.

Ben’s tone brought me back to the conversation. “Beppe, stop. Your Emily does not need to hear this.”

Joseph’s jaw flexed. What was already square became chiseled and pulsed right below his earlobes. “Joseph.” To me he whispered, “Beppe is short for Giuseppe. And he won’t stop using it.”

Ben winked at me. “We start again. Ciao, I am Benito. Joseph is my brother.” He emphasized the name, flattening out the vowels like an American.

“And I’m Emily.” I smiled all over again.

Still holding my hand, he addressed Joseph. “Hai una bella ospite stasera.”

“It’s not a date. I just told you. She’s a restorer renting space. She arrived this afternoon and doesn’t know anyone in town.” Joseph thrust out his palm as if tempted to push his brother over. “Stop baiting me.”

“I am sorry.” Ben bounced up, withdrawing his hand from mine in the process, and leaned on the table. He flexed his fingers across the checked tablecloth as if he had something important to stay. “Let me recommend something special tonight for your non-date.” He addressed me. “Ho convinto zia Maria per pemettermi di fare zuppa di spinaci e ricotta.”

I worked the words through my head, knowing I was changing them, altering them, but praying I understood them.

Joseph waved his hand as if ridding us of a pest. “Fine. Two.”

Ben’s eyes stayed focused on mine, one brow reaching into his hairline.

“Yes, I’ll have that too,” I said, without fully grasping what we’d ordered. “Thanks.”

He nodded and walked away.

The silence turned oppressive.

I looked around again, searching for a comment, and landed on, “Your aunt and uncle’s restaurant is lovely.”

Outside, the white stucco and faded awning had given a rumpled cottage look, almost as if it belonged in a small English village, but the inside was quintessential Italian—at least my impression of it. Dark green walls, red-and-white-checked cloths, red plastic votive holders with matching breadbaskets, and small bottles of vinegar and olive oil. Wine served in clear plastic carafes. It felt like family had to sit close, share dishes with their stories, and the garlic would linger on your clothes and in your hair as you carried home your leftovers.

“Hmm . . .” Joseph’s eyes followed the trail mine had just completed. “Ben comes for a visit and they pounce on him, thinking because he works at our family’s restaurant back in Italy he can help, he can make all this better.” He rattled on, each word overlapping the next. “And Ben agreed. He didn’t even know them before he arrived, and he agreed. He made all these plans to change everything, from the menu to the decor. It will end in disaster.” He stopped and stared at me and, I suspected, remembered that we’d only just met.

“Why?”

“Why did they ask or why did he agree?” Joseph sighed. “Piccolo is slowing down. Look around—even your first time here you must sense it. Vito and Maria are older now, tired. There is no vita, life, here anymore, and if they want to sell, it won’t bring enough. It could, though. It’s good space and in a good neighborhood. As for Ben . . . He’s not the guy to do this kind of work. He’s a chef, a dreamer. At least as a kid that’s who he was. Always eager to help and jump aboard any sinking ship. But righting the ship takes another personality.”

“But—” I clamped off my protest. Who was I to have an opinion at all? Just because a guy has a gorgeous smile and dancing eyes . . .

After a few moments the silence lay too heavy again, and I wondered why Joseph had invited me to dinner at all. He had no obligation. Covington Insurance had merely rented me a workstation at his studio for two weeks, nothing more. I had a job to do, a Residence Inn suite to sleep in, my books, my paintings, and a Netflix account to keep me occupied in the evenings . . . I had no need for awkward dinners with a surly Italian in the midst of a family feud.

I asked, “What did you order for us?”

Joseph’s eyes took on a flash of alarm. “I’m sorry, he set me off and I assumed you understood. Soup with spinach and ricotta. He’ll bring it with a salad and bread; it will be enough.”

“Oddly, I’m not that hungry. You would think I would be, with only a Blizzard today.”

“A blizzard?” His arch tone killed my enthusiasm and my explanation. I nodded, as if he had questioned my choice rather than my meaning.

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The food soon arrived and not the guy pulled up a chair. I wasn’t sure what kind of guy Ben was that precluded his ability to help his aunt and uncle, but he was a demonstrative guy, hands waving like a cyclone. He was a happy guy, eyes lit with laughter even when Joseph’s tone—I couldn’t catch many of the words—conveyed a reprimand. He was a kind guy, hands slowing and voice softening as he tried to draw me into the conversation while easing his brother’s clear annoyance.

He was exactly what I had always envisioned my ideal that guy to be. Actually, the whole list, fully formed at age eight, started and ended with Italian—all the rest was icing.

I sat quietly and watched Ben’s hands move. They were strong, with long fingers, not tapered, but blunt at the nails. And they flew, moving at the rate of his words. I tried to catch the gist of them, but his Italian eclipsed his English and I missed much of it. Something about pizza, the restaurant closing to paint, not closing to paint, and Papa.

I heard irresponsabile and lavoro, meaning “work,” but was certain I’d missed the mark as leprechaun and swirl made no sense. Clearly checking out Rosetta Stone a few times from the library had not made me fluent.

The conversation drew to a quiet close as Ben’s hands dropped to his lap. “So che posso . . .”

I know I can, I translated in my head . . . then, “Aiuto,” we whispered together. Help. He knows he can help.

I clamped my hand over my mouth; I hadn’t meant to say it aloud.

Ben seized my hand. “You understand.”

I could only nod. Yes, I understood. I got it—not all he’d said, but what he was trying to do. He wanted to give his aunt and uncle something more. A chance. A better life. Joy. I wasn’t sure any of it was possible, but I appreciated that he believed it. It was so clear, so beautifully clear, that he believed it.

Ben nodded at me as if an entire conversation was passing between us and we sat in perfect agreement. He then turned back to his brother, perhaps not realizing he still held my hand captive beneath his. “I can help, Joseph. Let me do what I know.”

Joseph looked between us as if stumbling upon something unexpected. He didn’t reply.

Ben looked down at our hands. His eyes widened with embarrassment and he pulled his away so fast I felt an instant chill. “Mi scusi.” He sat back, crossed his arms, and smiled slow and broad. “You speak Italian?”

“Un po.” I tapped my fingers together. The whole moment flustered me, so I stood—and knocked back my chair. Ben lunged to catch it. I added, “Ho bisogno di usare il buco.”

“You do speak un po.” Ben compressed a smile. “You mean il bagno. Bathroom.”

“What did I say?”

“Hole.”

I felt my face flame as I strode to the front of the restaurant. “Zia Maria” intercepted me with nods and a guiding hand on my arm, pointing to the ladies’ room.

“Grazie.”

“You are welcome, my dear.”

Moments later I pushed back through the door and into the small lobby to find Joseph waiting by the hostess stand.

“We can go now.” He held open the front door. “We shouldn’t have gotten into it with you here.”

“It’s all right. I didn’t understand most of it.”

“You caught enough, and I apologize.” He stepped into the warm night, then away from me. “Welcome to Atlanta, Emily, and I’ll see you at the studio tomorrow morning.” He crossed to his car, and I stood next to my station wagon.

“Thank you for dinner,” I called after him.

I stood by my car a few minutes, tempted to go back inside. There was something about that guy—not only what he wanted to do, but who he was and how he listened to his brother’s rantings and insults with patience, with those bottomless brown eyes that didn’t carry resentment or indignation, but instead, gold flecks, barely contained laughter, and even joy.

And although he seemed playful—sending a few winks my direction when Joseph got really heated—I somehow knew he wasn’t flighty. He meant what he said. He wanted to help his aunt and uncle, and he would. It was that, that drive to fix what was broken, that resonated with me.

I finally dropped into my car with another ear-to-ear grin. Welcome to Atlanta.

Katherine Reay is also the writer behind Lizzy & Jane and the The Bronte Plot, a 2016 ALA Notable Book Award Finalist. All Katherine’s novels are contemporary stories with a bit of classical flair. Katherine holds a BA (with honors and was awarded membership to Phi Beta Kappa, the nation’s oldest academic honor society) and a MS from Northwestern University. She is a wife, mother, runner, former marketer, avid chocolate consumer and, randomly, a tae kwon do black belt. After living all across the country and a few stops in Europe, Katherine and her family recently moved to back Chicago. Find her on Twitter @katherine_reay and www.katherinereay.com.

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