Ruby stepped as close to the rocky point as she dared, taking quiet joy in overlooking the shimmering, deep blue water that filled the verdant fjord stretching before her. To the north soared snow-capped Italian and Swiss peaks. On either side of the lake, palms, firs, and mulberry trees clustered in villages tucked at the base of steeply sloping hillsides, where yellow daffodils and violet crocuses bloomed in abundance.
Ruby lifted her chin to the breeze the locals called Breva, Lake Como’s afternoon winds from the south. She ran a hand over her dark red, shoulder-length coiffure. Though she had a top stylist who faithfully matched her trademark color, her hair was hardly the luxuriant, glossy mane that had earned her childhood nickname.
As a girl, her hair was so dark and shiny her mother called it ruby. The name stuck because Lucille Eunice was too long to call out. For her stage name, Ruby adopted her mother’s maiden name of Raines. She’d thought it sounded so fancy and elegant—and her talent agent had thought her surname of Smith was too ordinary for an actress.
While the small, private tour group of retired film actors chattered on behind her, she folded an arm across her torso, recalling the feeling of Niccolò’s arms twined around her as they’d stood on this very spot in Bellagio. His strong hands had spanned her narrow waist. At the memory, a fine, exquisite feeling filled her chest. Her love for him had never wavered, never dimmed.
This type of love was all that Ruby wished for her niece Ariana. Yet, Ruby feared Ariana might not have the chance.
My dearest, my Niccolò. They had met in the summer of 1952 on the set of Roman Holiday, which remained her favorite film. The story of an independent-thinking, runaway princess who scorns her duties for a magical escape in Rome and a taste of true love never grew old. That film had made Audrey Hepburn a star and, in a roundabout way, launched Ruby’s career in film as well.
Placing her hand over the hollow of her neck, she caressed the worn silver pendant that Audrey had given her. Ruby had been moved by her generosity, though that wasn’t the primary reason she’d cherished it.
That summer was imprinted on a movie reel in her brain—quite apart from the film shown in theaters.
* * *
It was June of 1952…
Wearing a full, sky-blue skirt with a crisp white shirt and a jaunty scarf at her neck—compliments of the wardrobe supervisor—Ruby stretched out her legs on the Spanish Steps in Rome. The Hassler, a grand hotel where Audrey Hepburn, Gregory Peck, and Eddie Albert were staying, loomed above the steep stone steps.
In the summer heat, Ruby rolled her sleeves high on her arms as the wardrobe assistant had instructed and tried to focus on the script in her lap. She had to memorize the lines for her short scene.
Ruby rubbed her stomach, which was tied up in knots as tight as the bowlines her father had taught her to tie on the ranch back in Texas. Here she was, living the dream she’d imagined. A real speaking part in a film in Italy! She couldn’t believe her good fortune. Ruby had her mother to thank for this adventure.
Just below her in the piazza, Mr. Wyler and his assistant director conferred. Miss Hepburn and Mr. Peck were relaxing between takes while their hair and makeup were being refreshed. Grips and gaffers adjusted equipment and lighting. Above them, people watched from railings, and smoke from their cigarettes curled into the warm air. Their chatter would be silenced when filming began again.
A shadow crossed her script.
Ruby shielded her eyes and looked up into a pair of incredible blue eyes rimmed with thick, dark lashes and a slash of eyebrows. With sculpted cheekbones and shiny dark hair that framed a strong face, he was the most breathtakingly beautiful man she’d ever seen.
“Hi,” she managed to say as her throat constricted.
“I’m a Texan. The state used to be a republic. For ten years.” Silently, she chastised herself. Why did I say that? She’d been as nervous as a cottontail rabbit ever since she’d arrived in Rome.
A smile played on his full lips. “I’m Niccolò. Do you mind if I sit with you? We can rehearse together,” he added, opening a copy of the script.
“Ruby. Pleased to meet you.” His melodic voice made her toes curl with pleasure. “Where did you learn English so well?” she