New to the Serial?
Or go and read part one here and part two here...
“Where are we meeting him?” I asked Mario as soon as we parked.
“Not so far away, in a bar called Anima Gemella. It’s near Palazzo Steri.”
Since Mario’s van was large, and the parking places available in La Kalsa oh-so-tiny and already double-queued, we had to opt for a parking garage on Piazza Ungheria. La Kalsa was one of Palermo’s most ancient quarters, and also the location where our meeting with Mario’s friend was supposed to take place.
We got out and walked through the dark corridor leading us to the ground level. As the door of the parking garage closed behind us, the Sicilian sun blinded me. My head started to turn as if the abrupt intensity of light made me dizzy.
Or maybe it wasn’t that but rather the realization that the insane plan we had decided upon in Cirella’s dusty trattoria under the bored glance of that blond waitress was turning into reality.
In less than ten minutes we were going to meet up with a policeman to speak about Giuseppe. My fiancé. I couldn’t think of a more sickening situation to be in.
Especially because beside me walked the only man whose simple existence would make me doubt the rightness of my decision about marriage, even if I didn’t suspect Giuseppe to be connected with the Mob.
Mario, as if he wanted to make my wobbly knees give up for good, rubbed my back gently. “Is everything okay with you, Lucilla?”
“Sure, sure. I just can’t believe they’re charging this much for an hour of parking.” I complained loudly, mostly to distract myself from my sweaty hands and fast heartbeat.
Mario only chuckled at my comment. “That might be, but here we’re just off Via Ruggero Settimo, the main street bisecting Palermo between Piazza Castelnuovo and Piazza Verdi. The fee is steep, but most major monuments and the old town centre are within easy walking distance from this parking.”
“Still, it’s a theft. In Cirella you can park for a day with three euros,” I added to corroborate my previous comment.
The truth was I couldn’t care less if we spent ten euros for an hour, as long as if, during that hour, I would learn whether or not Giuseppe was leading a double life.
Mario shrugged. “Don’t worry, I can afford it. My investor has sent me a very generous advance to get my project going. I prefer not to travel with the tube for now. We don’t know what Emiliano will tell us. It could be that we need to move to another part of the city, or maybe even to the suburbs. It’s safer to have our own means of transport.”
His words were so rational, as if he was thinking two steps ahead already. I was tempted to ask what he thought we would learn from his friend, but I suppressed the urge.
I didn’t want to pester Mario anymore about how this encounter could go down. It must have been tiring for him already to listen to my obsessive babbling during our almost-six hours’ drive.
Not that he had grumbled about it. He had let me play out each scenario I envisaged in minute details without interrupting me.
Were it Giuseppe, he would have silenced me after the first twenty minutes by turning on the radio and tuning in on a hard rock channel. Or he would have simply pretended that he was interested, but if I asked any feedback, he would be lost.
Not so Mario. His well-inserted comments and questions showed me that he was not only hearing me but listening to me. Taking me seriously. Like with this silly remark of mine about the price of the parking.
I dared a furtive glance at his profile as we hurried down the road taking us to Piazza Marina.
He wore a pair of aviator sunglasses, a white T-shirt, and a pair of jeans. His hair was tousled in a mellow style that made me want to comb through his thick tresses with my fingers.
Lucilla, cut it out now. It’s not the best moment to lose yourself in Mario’s splendor.
To be fair, probably no moment was a good one for this type of musing, considering my circumstances.
But this one was likely even less suitable than any other. I needed all my wit to focus on this conversation with the policeman. It was, for now, the only lead we had, the only possible starting point for this investigation.
If we came up empty-handed, what then? Could I go back to Cirella and pretend that I’d never seen that email?
The tall Palazzo Steri appeared in front of us, signaling that we were close to our destination.
This wasn’t the first time that I saw this impressive building. But its impregnable, windowless walls surprised me with their megalithic feel nonetheless. A chill ran through my spine, despite the sultry temperature surrounding us. Its pure robustness oozed menace, an impression that was only strengthened by the sight of the crenellations running along the top of its tower. Somehow the blunt message—that its old residents weren’t likely to welcome visitors was clearly written everywhere.
Wasn’t it funny that we were seeing Mario’s friend exactly here? In the shadow of a building that hid so many contrasts and gave me the creeps?
Mario pointed at a man with a beard standing beside a tall table outside a cozy looking bar. “See that guy? That’s Emiliano.”
My eyes darted to the man, who was now waving at us with a wide smile stretching across his face.
“Remind me again how you know him?” I whispered to Mario as we approached.
He answered me in a low voice. “His father and my mother grew up together. Before I moved to the States, we spent many summers in the same vacation camp.”
I studied the guy with even more interest now. This Emiliano not only held the key of my future in his hands, but he also knew many details about Mario as a young boy. I hated to admit it, but this second part interested me almost as much as the first.
“Ciao, ragazzi,” Emiliano greeted us in a raspy accent.
His tone was so upbeat that I immediately checked the number of espressos on the table. Sure enough, three empty cups stood rubbing shoulders with each other.
Emiliano didn’t miss my scrutiny. He lifted his shoulders in a what-can-I-do kind of way and chuckled. “I had a late shift yesterday night. Under normal circumstances I’d be sleeping now, but I couldn’t miss my friend, could I?”
Mario flashed him a smile and patted his shoulder. “Thanks, Emiliano. I knew I could count on you.”
He introduced us to each other, and after I shook Emiliano’s hand, Mario asked. “So buddy, what did you find out about those tapes?”
My stomach grew heavy with anticipation.
We asked the receptionist in our hotel right after our arrival if they could check the surveillance cameras for us, but they refused. I was so disappointed. I’d spent almost an hour in the car rehearsing with Mario the lie that I could sell to them to get their permission to look at the recordings from Easter.
But Mario just laughed at me. He said I couldn’t seriously expect that they’d let me see anything that could violate their guests’ privacy. He also assured me, however, that Emiliano could surmount this obstacle for us.
Now was the moment of truth.
Emiliano’s grin disappeared, and he scratched his chin as if he needed a second to gather his thoughts. “The thing is, Mario, that the tapes are useless.”
Mario’s brows arched. “Useless how? Bad quality? Wrong angles? No information…how?”
His tone was pressing, which confirmed to me that he was as eager to shed light on this mystery as I was.
I knew his self-interest had to be in line with my objectives. Mario needed to be able to trust Giuseppe if he wanted to work with him. But a small voice in the back of my mind, one whose existence I would be ashamed to admit to anyone and preferred to ignore myself, whispered that his zeal might be motivated by me.
Emiliano shrugged. “All of the above. The men who installed the surveillance system must have been scoundrels. They used cameras with almost nonexistent optical zooms and outdated software. The owner never noticed it before, since he only authorized the recordings to comply with some European security regulation. There isn’t really a backroom where the tapes are watched.”
“Where does that leave us?” I slammed my hand on the round metal table, and Emiliano’s empty cups chattered loudly.
Mario put a hand between my shoulder blades. “Stay calm, Lucilla. We’ll figure something out.”
“Why do you need so badly a confirmation about this man’s involvement with the Levuccis?” Emiliano narrowed his eyes at both of us, then his glance sought Mario’s gaze. “Are you in some kind of trouble with him?”
Mario threw me a questioning look and I nodded.
At this point, it might be better to let Emiliano in on our quest. Maybe if he understood the situation fully, he would be more anxious to help us. Perhaps he would take pity on me. Whatever his reason might be, I didn’t mind. I needed him to give us another clue for how to go on.
Mario recounted to Emiliano the essential points of our situation.
His friend whistled shortly, then bobbed his head. “I see. You two should come to work for my unit. And maybe your cousin too, Lucilla. I could use a few enthusiastic undercover agents. Here, most of the policemen are either fed up with chasing these scumbags or, which is probably even worse, sit on their payroll.”
“Will you help us or not?” I asked bluntly, because despite the interesting detail about his colleagues and his ill-suited joke, Emiliano still hadn’t told us how we were to continue from here on.
Emiliano smacked his lips, while he shot a glance at Mario. “Wow, man. Your companion’s got some fire in her. And the looks, too. If I were you, I would do my best to learn the truth about her fiancé.”
Mario nodded. “It’s what I’m trying to do.”
“Then, in case the guy is guilty…” He gave a small nudge into Mario’s ribs and chuckled.
My cheeks heated at his comment, and I could see Mario’s jaw grow harder.
“What?” Emiliano chuckled. “Don’t tell me you haven’t thought of this? The Mario I knew would have—”
“The Mario you know now needs you to shut up and think, Emiliano. How can we proceed from here? Any ideas?” Mario’s tone and words were categorical, and they erased the sly smirk from his friend’s face.
Emiliano shrugged. “Okay, just give me a sec. I might have an idea.” He pulled out his phone and walked further away from us.
Mario blinked at me as soon as his friend was out of earshot. “I’m very sorry, Lucilla. Emiliano is a good guy, he really is. But his style takes some getting used to. Also, he is a bit of a womanizer so…”
Mario’s hands played with a small spoon on the table, clicking a steady rhythm as if he had too much tension bottled up and this was his way of releasing it.
I shook my head. “That’s okay, I understand. Though I grew up with mostly women, you wouldn’t believe the inappropriate blunders my cousins can throw at me when I need them the least.”
Mario’s features relaxed and he exhaled. “Good, I was worried you might think I had ulterior motives when I offered to come with you to Palermo. Because I don’t. I just want to help you the best possible way I can.”
His words were so sweet, but they pierced my insides nonetheless. I had assumed that Mario was so embarrassed by Emiliano’s babbling because his friend had said something that Mario himself had already considered.
But this wasn’t the case.
This news should make me happy. What’s the matter with me? Was I truly sorry that Mario revealed himself as an honest person who didn’t have dubious intentions with me?
Emiliano returned to us. “You’ll both love me for this.”
“What happened?” I asked.
“Whom did you talk too?” Mario said.
Emiliano, as if he was glad that we both seemed curious about his news, rubbed his palms together. “I just spoke to an informant. He’s a guy who delivers to me great tips about some local families tied up with the drug cartels. He says he might be able to get us the list of those henchmen that the Levuccis have recruited since this spring. Do I get a kiss or what?” He winked at me.
I grinned back. “That’s amazing, Emiliano. If my fiancé is on that list, then I will have proof of his involvement. But if he isn’t…”
I paused, suddenly doubting how much I could trust an informant I’d never met. I only knew about these kinds of snitches from the movies. Did the police have any way to verify whether they were delivering solid information?
As if Mario could read in my thoughts, he leaned closer to his friend. “Emilia’, how can we be sure the details we get from your guy will correspond to the reality?”
“They will, trust me. My man is hooking up with the daughter of a high-level guy. He has great insider info, which hasn’t failed us before now. If this man clears your boyfriend, Lucilla, you can stop suspecting him. If he doesn’t, well then you might just need a strong ex-firefighter to console you, right?”
Mario shot an annoyed look at Emiliano, and it was enough to silence his friend.
I chose to ignore the last part of his phrase.
First, because the prospect he had depicted didn’t repulse me at all. On the contrary. Which was already a bad sign. I didn’t want to think about what would happen after I’d learned the truth. I’d cross that river when the time came. For now, it was enough of a challenge to discover the facts.
“When can your informant get us this list?” I asked.
Emiliano shook his head. “No idea. Maybe a day, maybe three. Or a bit longer. It’s hard to know. He said he would call me when he has it. You guys can stay in town that long, right?”
“Three days? Or more?” I echoed.
It had been already a challenge to sell my family and coworkers that I needed to take a long weekend. I might have told Mario that it wouldn’t be a problem, but that wasn’t true. Strangely enough, Giuseppe was the only one who didn’t crucify me with questions. But my aunts and Carmen took care of that. Even Lara was nosier than usual, probably still thinking that my abrupt trip had to do something with Mario.
Not that she was wrong, after all.
Mario touched Emiliano’s arm. “Any way you can speed up the process? We planned to return to Cirella on Monday.”
Emiliano pursed his lips, which made his moustache shimmy around his mouth. “I’ll see what I can do. But I’ll need at least a day, or better, two. Why don’t you use this free time to visit Palermo a little? It’s a lovely city, despite its brewing criminal life.”
Sight-seeing with Mario? Just what I needed.
Without a clear schedule or scope to our days, we would have too much liberty to speak and act the way we wanted. I’d already seen that this kind of freedom was risky with him. Our almost-kiss in the kindergarten came to me and I swallowed. Especially from my side.
Mario didn’t seem to find Emiliano’s suggestion so ill-fitting. Instead he nodded. “That’s probably what we will do then. I haven’t visited this city in ages. Last time I was here, I was more interested in the nightclubs than in the touristic highlights.”
Emiliano’s face illuminated. “Ah, man, you recall that summer? We were only seventeen. The world was at our feet.”
The two men chatted briefly about their youth, while my mind filled with the image of an adolescent Mario partying in this city. The adult Mario seemed so focused. It would be interesting to see how far his kick-up-your-heels young self was still hidden somewhere. I wouldn’t mind coming across him, even if for a brief moment.
No, Lucilla. What are you even thinking?
My mental scolding arrived a second too late. My body had already filled with the image of Mario letting lose, which in my pitiful fantasy world, equaled that he went through with our kiss.
“Lucilla!” Emiliano’s call jarred me out of the thrills that decided to race up and down my neck as I anticipated Mario’s lips.
“What happened?” I asked.
“I need to get going. If I don’t get into the proximity of my bed soon, I’ll need an infusion of an espresso directly into my bloodstream. I can already feel these last three losing effect.”
Mario patted Emiliano’s shoulder. “Of course, go home and rest. Thanks for meeting us on such short notice. And, even more, thanks for getting so involved with our case.”
I loved how the word “our” rolled of his tongue. It made me feel safe and cared for. I wasn’t alone in this mess. We were in it together.
Emiliano and I shook hands again and then he left.
Mario tapped my arm. “Do you want me to get you a coffee? I feel like having one after staring for twenty minutes at Emiliano’s empty cups.”
“Yes, an espresso macchiato, please.”
“Coming right up.” Mario smiled and stepped inside the bar.
I stayed outside, leaning my elbow on the table. I studied the building of Palazzo Steri once more.
Somehow, on second glance, the previous uneasy sensation it unleashed in me dissipated. I noticed its little architectural sophistications, like the fine double- and triple-lancet windows decorated with lavastone intarsia. Even the walls seemed lower and less imposing as before.
What had changed? Was it the fact that the weight of spying was lifted off of my shoulders, for a day at least? Or was it the fact that I would spend this very day with Mario alone?
I closed my eyes and inhaled. Whatever the reason was for this relief, it spread into my limbs I was grateful for it. I needed a little break from everything and probably this little intermezzo with Mario would grant me just that.
I just needed to pay attention that I didn’t let his unique charisma swipe me off my feet. At least not completely. If I could do that, all would be fine.
“Okay, where shall we start?” I asked Mario while I studied the map I had just bought from a tabaccaio.
Mario pointed at the paper in my hand. “So we are here, right now. We could head from here to Zisa, Marina, Seracaldio… ” He moved his finger from one color to the other. “Whichever you pick, we’ll find things to see, I guarantee you. How well do you know Palermo?”
“Not as well as I would like to…” Looking at all the districts and the red dots that indicated tourist attractions, I realized the tours that Giuseppe had taken me on when I used to visit him were all rather lazy. There was still so much I hadn’t seen. “…and apparently far less than you seem to know the city. How come?”
“My father was enlisted in the seasonal reinforcement squad when I was younger. It’s a service that sends firefighters to specific regions in the moment of need. So during summers, we would often travel and stay in the South. Twice in a row, he got stationed here in Palermo for a longer period.”
“Oh, wow. I wasn’t even aware such a mobile unit existed.”
Mario shrugged. “Why would you? Most people don’t know about it.”
“It’s just that Giuseppe never mentioned that Cirella could count on such support. And goodness knows, we need it.”
“Well, he wouldn’t be the biggest promoter of this service, since it would make his company’s importance less pronounced, right?” Mario shook his head. “Sorry, not my place to insinuate anything. Plus, I’m not even sure whether these squads still operate the way they used to. It’s been a long time. My father’s last seasonal mission was in Cirella, and you know how it went…”
A glint of darkness flashed in his eyes like the last time we spoke about his father’s death.
“I’m sorry,” I mumbled.
I’d tried to avoid this sad topic with Mario ever since we left for Sicily. I didn’t want to stir up any bad memories in him.
Also I didn’t know what Mario thought about the fact that his father’s tragedy helped my father establish his power in Cirella. Maybe he condemned my father for striking a deal with criminals to save our town.
Mario shrugged. “It’s okay, don’t worry. We’re here to enjoy our free afternoon not to get all gloomy about the past, right?”
“Right,” I nodded and dropped my thumb randomly on one of the colors on the map. It landed near Kalsa. “Let’s go here.”
“Marina? Excellent choice. It’s one of my favorite parts of the city, because of Villa Giulia and the botanic garden. And it’s only a short walk from here. ”
“Ah, a lovely walk among exotic plants sounds like heaven.”
I tilted my head toward the busy street to our left where two cars were honking violently at a scooter that had just cut them off.
Mario chuckled. “I know what you mean. Palermo is a chaotic place, but in the villa we’ll find a quiet spot for sure. If I recall well, there is also a pretty good ice cream stand right before the entrance.”
We started to walk toward the sea, and with each step we took, the smell of salty water became more intense. It mixed together with a stench, though, that could best be described as rotten fish and sweat.
I wrinkled my nose and directed my attention back to Mario. “So, you and Emiliano, huh? He hinted at your partying times…”
I let my phrase trail off, hoping Mario would pick up the thread without me having to force him. I was curious to hear more about his life, but I didn’t want to come across as prying.
“Yes, those good ol’ times.”
He threw me a side-glance and his mouth curled into a coy smile.
Jeez, is he going to make me beg for more information? Well, I won’t beg.
Or maybe just a little. One question more.
“So,” I cleared my throat, “you were like a wild boy back then or what?”
“Do you mean, was I a womanizer like Emiliano?”
“Well, no…I mean, yes. Were you?”
“Maybe…it depends on your definition, I guess.”
Mario bobbed his head from left to right as if trying to decide whether the number of flings he might have had would qualify him to be called a tomcat.
Despite my best effort, an image of a young Mario surrounded with all-leg blondes flashed into my mind and my stomach churned.
Perhaps I should quit digging around in his past, if this was the effect. “Ah, I see,” I said in an upbeat tone. “It’s interesting to know that you had that kind of period, too. You seem so disciplined and focused now. Like no woman could distract you from what you want.”
“Not any woman. No. But maybe one…”
My head snapped to him. What did he mean? Or more precisely whom?
But Mario wasn’t looking at me. His eyes were fixed on a small shop to our left. “Look, Lucilla. I was right. Gelato Pino is still here. Come on, you’ve gotta try their pistachio flavor. It’s to die for.”
What? Ice cream? I don’t want any friggin’ ice cream.
What I wanted was for him to tell me about whom he was referring with his ambiguous remark.
But I couldn’t ask without seeming too obviously interested in the answer.
I followed Mario into the shop. After we both got cones of deliciously creamy treats, Mario led us to the entrance of Villa Giulia.
The old man in the ticket booth came out as he saw us approaching. His creased face illuminated as we arrived. “Finally, some visitors,” he exclaimed in a voice so raspy that I had a hard time understanding his thick accent. He must have smoked not only cigarettes but also pipes to mess up his vocal chords like that.
Mario’s brows shot up. “Why would you say this? Not many tourists nowadays?”
The man lifted his bony hand and waved it a few times in the air from the left to right. “There are enough tourists, amico mio, but most prefer to go to the Orto Botanico. True, that’s a much larger, almost-twenty-five-hectare establishment. But my Villa Giulia is just as special.”
As he pronounced the name of the garden, a clear pride filled his voice.
His apparent satisfaction about selling tickets for this very location triggered my curiosity. “Why is it so special?”
He gave me a knowing smile. “Ah, signorina, that’s the kind of answer you’ll need to experience yourself once you’re inside. What I can tell you is this: as you stroll about in the gardens you will realize there is something very magical in the scents that make you forget you are standing in the center of a polluted city.”
“That sounds promising,” Mario winked at me. “This city is definitely more decayed than I remember.”
The old guard chuckled. “You know what we say here? If some detail offends you, just turn the other way. You’ll surely find something else that compensates for the shortcoming you were just wanting to complain about.”
“Interesting take on life.” Mario smiled at him.
The man replied with a wide grin. “Because you seem like a lovely couple, let me give you another must-see tip before you go into the villa, okay?”
“Let’s hear it,” Mario replied.
The man leaned closer and put his hand to his mouth as if about to reveal to us a major inside scoop. “Vucciria,” he whispered.
“You mean the outdoor market? I thought it wasn’t worth seeing anymore. My fi—” I wanted to say fiancé, but I stopped just in time. “My friend said that nowadays at Vucciria one would only find lousy fish mongers.”
“Well,” The old man opened his arms, “what can I say? Your friend was right. But…” He lifted a finger. “That’s the market In the daytime. When the sun goes down in the west, the Vucciria market comes to life. While, throughout the entire city, bars and nightclubs must close at 3 am, at Vucciria you have music filling the Garraffello Square until the sun rises.”
Mario’s eyes widened. “I didn’t know that. It sounds like a great place to see.”
“It is,” the man agreed. “But if you follow my advice and go—which I think you really should—take care of your beautiful lady. Keep her as close to you as you can, best tucked into your arms. The market has lots of skillful pickpockets.”
“We will keep it in mind. Now tell me, how much do we pay for the entrance?” Mario pulled out his wallet.
The man shook his head. “For you, nothing. You’re my guests today. Go and enjoy yourselves.”
We thanked him and walked inside the park.
“Funny old chap, wasn’t he?” Mario chuckled.
“He certainly has a unique way of looking at life and this town,” I agreed.
The man’s words about how we were to deal with unpleasant sights popped into my mind.
Yes, certainly a unique way of thinking. Even if…if people turn away from problems, those problems still persist, no?
I peeked at Mario from the corner of my eye and my chest tightened. I quickly snapped my head forward and the muscles lining my ribcage relaxed again.
Mhmm maybe, as a short term strategy there was something to the guard’s wisdom.…perhaps each time I felt at unease with Mario, I should just turn away from him?
We circled around a path that was lined with roses. Passed by a small clearing filled with tiny wildflowers. Sauntered along a road full of magnolia trees. We silently ate our ice creams, neither of us wanting to disturb nature’s spectacle with our words.
I inhaled deeply, filling my lungs with the flowery scent and sighed. The sheer contrast of this garden with the busy city life was as striking as the guard had predicted it would be.
When Mario had eaten the last piece of his cone, he turned to me. “Was it Giuseppe who spoke to you about that market? You just didn’t want to talk about him to the guard?”
I swallowed the last a bit of pistachio cream, reveling in the feeling of cold that spread in my throat. It eased the dryness that had started as soon as Mario mentioned Giuseppe’s name.
“Yes, I didn’t want the guard to ask questions about why I’m walking around with another man if I’m engaged.”
Mario stopped. “Lucilla, you do realize you’re allowed to be seen in public with other men. That does not make you a cheater, all right?”
I looked into his eyes, which were filled with a half-teasing, half-serious glint.
Yes, but the way my heart is beating right now certainly does.
I bit my lip. “I know. It’s just… I mean, he said we looked like a lovely couple…so…”
Mario’s jaw twitched. “Yes. I understand.” Then he gave me a smile. “Maybe you were right to mislead him, after all. He might not have given us such a great tip for tonight if he thought we were just two travel companions.”
“Well, we’re more than that…”
The idiotic words came out of my mouth and dangled in front of us as if they had taken on life on their own.
Mario jerked back. “What do you mean?”
Quick, quick. How can I salvage this?
I mustn’t say, we are clearly more than just two random people traveling together, because every time I look at you, I get the most confusing hot flashes. But even a phrase like, I trusted you with a secret I was afraid to tell anyone else, would be too…uhm, revealing…
I cleared my voice. “I mean we are friends, right?”
“Friends…” Mario tasted the word. “Yes. I guess, by now we’re friends.”
Mario’s voice sounded even, and I couldn’t decide what he thought of my choice of word.
For me, the word ‘friendship’ was like an isolating blanket. One that you could throw at a fire and it would suffocate the flames. Ah gosh, let’s hope that labeling our relationship with it will eventually tame this unacceptable thrill in my chest.
Mario waved with his hand. “I think the guard told the truth about this garden. It’s pretty spectacular, no?Maybe he was right about the Vucciria market too. Wanna test it tonight?”
He glanced at me, and even if I thought a simple trattoria and then my hotel room for this evening would be the best—or if I were honest—the safest, choice, I still nodded.
Mario grinned. “Great. We’ll have a fun time.”
His eyes crinkled, and the impact on my breathing was immediate.
The warning of the guard echoed in my ears. He advised Mario to keep me as close as possible. Best tucked into your arms—he’d said.
I could only hope that my friend would take the man’s instructions with a pinch of salt.
Because if he did not, and actually decided to hug me or something similar, then it wouldn’t matter what kind of label I attached to him in my head…
No. Then no isolating blanket would be strong enough to keep my reactions at bay.
After a shower in the tiny bathroom of my hotel room, where each ample movement made me bump my elbow on unexpectedly sharp edges, I was feeling refreshed. I had needed a replenishing splash of water badly after the heat we’d endured during our walk in the Marina.
If I was honest, I wasn’t sure if it was just the outside temperature or, rather, the hot flashes that came over me each time my glance crossed Lucilla’s.
Why did she have to have that exquisite color that reminded me of all kinds of romantic metaphors?
Also, when did talking to her become my favorite pastime? Because that’s what had happened without me wanting it. I realized this as we were about to leave Villa Giulia. Had it been up to me, I could have stayed on a bench with her till the stars came up, chatting about our lives and dreams.
I could hardly recognize myself. This wasn’t at all how I normally reacted to women or even people in general. I was a rather reserved person, preferring to keep my deepest thoughts to myself.
In Lucilla’s presence, even my most secret aspirations seemed to tumble out of my mouth—as if her opinion should be the judge of their worth.
All my hidden desires, except for one.
I rubbed my face with both hands, then gave myself two slaps.
Would it be enough to jumpstart my rationality?
My head didn’t quite clear, but my rough gesture made my gaze focus again. My eyes wandered to the clock on the wall. A large antique piece that emitted a clicking sound with the passing of each second.
Tick-tock-tick-tock…rhythmical and strong just like a heartbeat.
For a second I asked myself if Lucilla’s room had a similar one and whether she might be looking at it just now. If she was, our hearts could be pounding to the same cadence without us realizing…
The shrill ring of my cell phone jarred me out of this idiotic chain of thoughts.
I stepped over to the small mahogany desk in the corner and grabbed my phone.
The number on the screen wasn’t familiar.
Could they be calling me from the fire station? I’d left them the access keys to a few drones so Lorenzo’s crew could play around with the data. Perhaps they were having trouble interpreting the numbers.
I pressed the green button. “Hello? It’s Mario speaking.”
To my surprise, the upbeat soprano of a woman chirped into my ear. “Mario? It’s Carmen. You remember me? We met at Lucilla’s engagement party.”
Lucilla’s cousin? Why was she calling me?
“Sure, Carmen, I remember. How do you have my number? ”
Even if I didn’t recall Lucilla’s cousin’s features, the detailed description Lucilla gave me of their adventure in the warehouse helped me picture Carmen perfectly.
“Oh, I got that from the fire station. I need to talk to you. Is Lucilla there with you at the moment?”
A fit of coughing exploded in my throat as I tried to inhale and swallow at the same time.
How the heck did Carmen know? Lucilla had assured me she hadn’t revealed our plan to anyone.
“No. Why would you assume she’s here?” I mumbled when the tickling sensation subsided.
“Ah please.” Carmen gave out a snort that was half-disdained, half-amused. “Don’t think I didn’t put two and two together when I heard from Giuseppe that you left around the same day as my cousin did. It wasn’t hard to figure out that you two went together somewhere…somewhere like…Palermo?”
Wow, was she gifted or what? “How did you know that?”
Carmen laughed. “I didn’t, but now I do. I just took an intelligent guess based on my assessment of Luci’s ability to tell lies—which, between us, is like that of her kindergarten students. She said she was traveling to Catania. So I knew she wouldn’t go there really. But, if not to the second biggest city in Sicily, then maybe to the first? And bingo!”
Okay, so Carmen did have the spunk and intelligence Lucilla had told me about.
“Yes, we’re in Palermo. But, no, Lucilla isn’t here with me. I mean, not right now. She’s in her room and—”
“Wait then!” Carmen cut me off hurriedly and a shrill beep echoed in my left ear.
I stared at my phone in disbelief.
Did she just kill the line? Why would she—?
Before I had time to think about it any further, my phone rang again, this time reporting a video call.
I brushed through my wet hair with a hand and adjusted the collar of my shirt. I pressed answer and held the phone farther away from my face.
The freckled cheeks and deep mocha eyes of a young woman appeared on my screen. They looked vaguely familiar. Yes, I must have shaken Carmen’s hand at some point since my arrival in Cirella.
Carmen furrowed her brows. “So you guys are in separate rooms?”
“Of course. Lucilla’s engaged. You didn’t think we would—”
Carmen rolled her eyes. “Ah, you can stop pretending. And get off your moral high-horse! I know that you’d want to stay with her. Maybe Lucilla would too if she wasn’t about to get married—though she may not admit that to herself for now.”
Her voice sounded mocking but without being disapproving.
Could she be right about Lucilla? A quick quiver ran through my chest as I contemplated this possibility.
“Anyway, I’m not calling you to snoop around about your…friendship with my cousin.” Carmen scratched her chin.
I was still too gobsmacked to answer her.
The fact that another person—and none other than Lucilla’s personal confidant—was suggesting that something besides mutual business interest could tie me and Lucilla together was too unsettling.
Carmen waited for my reaction, but when it didn’t come, she continued. “Okay, I’m assuming you’re listening even if your gaze is slightly glazed. But I don’t have much time before one of my aunts comes down.”
I looked past her shoulders and recognized the large painting behind her back. It was one I had passed by when I had walked to Lucilla’s father’s study. A sudden panic flashed through me. “Yes, I’m listening. What are you doing in your cousin’s house? Did somebody blow Lucilla’s cover?”
Coming to Palermo had been my idea, and the fact that we needed to stay longer than we had planned was also on me, or rather on my contact. If I stirred up trouble for Lucilla with this crazy detective trip, I would never forgive myself.
Carmen shook her head. “Nope. For now everyone believes her story about the training program. Everyone but me, of course. I knew that she lied as soon as I heard you were out of town, too. I just couldn’t be sure if you were taking my role as her sidekick in this wild-goose chase, or whether you two…you know…” She wiggled her brows.
I immediately put a brake on my mind. The last thing I needed was to dwell on any particular image that Carmen’s erroneous hypothesis was implying. “It’s the former,” I uttered, but my voice was way too husky, which proved that some inappropriate thoughts about Lucilla had already slipped through my control.
Carmen nodded. “Yep, I figured when you said you have two rooms. Better so. Because I have some new information for your search. A rather puzzling discovery indeed.”
I arched my brows as a confused expression settled on my face. “How so? And why are you sharing this with me instead of Lucilla?”
“Because I need to tell someone, otherwise I’ll burst. What I’ve found out is something that would surely upset Luci. And I can’t risk exposing a theory that would turn her world upside down if I’m not one hundred percent positive that I’ve nailed it.”
Wasn’t it ironic that Lucilla hadn’t showed her cousin the email she’d found in the warehouse because she didn’t want Carmen to think differently of Giuseppe, in case the accusations were false?
“Aren’t you going to ask what I found?” Carmen fidgeted with a lock of hair, obviously impatient to unburden herself.
“I already know about it,” I said calmly.
She must have found out about Giuseppe and the Levuccis. Lucilla had told me once that Carmen went in full throttle if she was invested in something. Maybe she had gone back to the warehouse alone?
Carmen’s mouth moved into a circle, and her brows lifted. “What do you know already?”
I told her about the message Lucilla found.
Carmen listened to me with wide eyes that for some reason displayed a hint of surprise. When I finished she simply asked, “Do you believe Giuseppe is involved with the Mob?”
Yes. Or that’s what I hope, if I’m being sincere enough. “No idea. It’s a possibility.”
Carmen’s eyes narrowed and moved to my cheek. “Huh, so the tic under your left eye and the asymmetrical muscle structure of your smile…” Her gaze dropped and her eyes drifted from left to right as if she was reading something.
“What are you doing?”
She lifted a book. “‘Non-verbal communication deciphered. Interrogation techniques and more.’ It’s apparently a classic. I borrowed this from the library. Some ex-FBI agent wrote it. I thought it could be useful to hone my skills of detecting lies, given that lately the people around me are exhibiting a bunch of deceiving behaviors.”
“So you suspect me of lying?” I chuckled.
Carmen grinned. “Yes, you have all the signs of a person who is at unease and likely hiding something. Did your police friend come back with confirmation already? Are you keeping it from Lucilla to protect her?”
Well, Carmen might have only just read this interrogation guide, but she sure had a talent for implementing it. I was starting to feel like I was being questioned by a cop.
But I wasn’t ready to give her more information—not that I knew anything she didn’t already, at this point—before she told me how she had unearthed Giuseppe’s involvement with the Mob. “First, you need to tell me how you came to suspect Giuseppe too?”
Carmen bit her lip. “Well, the thing is…I don’t.”
“You don’t what?”
“Suspect Giuseppe. At least not of the same thing as you two do.”
I shifted the phone in my hand as my arm suddenly felt heavy. “Carmen, I think it’s time you start talking. Why did you call me? What is this theory you don’t want to expose Lucilla to just yet?”
Carmen sighed and walked over to a sofa. For a second, I could only see the green upholstery as she slouched down, but then her face came back on the screen. “Okay, fine. So here is how it happened. I came over to borrow one of Lucilla’s dresses. I have this reception I need to go to next week and I didn’t have time to go shopping so I—”
“Carmen, don’t lose focus, please.”
She flashed a quick smile at me. “Ah, right. Yes. So I came here this morning, and as I walked through the living room, I heard my uncle and Giuseppe arguing in the study. They must have thought nobody was around because they raised their voices—this wasn’t an unusual event. Giuseppe can be pig-headed and my uncle has got his temper. Anyway, I was just about to walk past, when I heard the name Levucci and the word Strongoli in the same sentence.”
My heartbeat picked up. “What did Giuseppe say?”
“It wasn’t Giuseppe, Mario. It was my uncle. He said, ‘The Levuccis need the hills of Strongoli burned.’”
“Nooo!” My jaw went slack. “What else did he say?”
“Nothing, because I made the mistake of dropping my bag. They noticed me, and my uncle stepped over and closed the study door.”
“So you heard nothing else?”
“Well, it took me a while to tiptoe to the wardrobe and squeeze myself between the furry coats so—”
Carmen gave me a look as if I was the weirdo for asking what she was doing climbing into a closet. “The wardrobe is attached to my uncle’s office. There’s a big hole between its back wall and his study. It’s hidden by a picture. It was my Aunt Renata’s doing. She wanted to bore a hole and ended up digging through the wall entirely. She was so ashamed of it that she just covered it up on both sides. I’m not sure if my uncle even knows of its existence.”
As I listened, I started to understand why Carmen was Lucilla’s favorite from her family. I could totally picture the two of them doing all kinds of fun pranks together as kids.
“Okay, so did you manage to catch anything else from their conversation?” I asked.
Carmen smacked her lips. “My uncle said ‘You need to make this right. I can’t get caught.’ Giuseppe said, ‘I don’t want to.’ And my uncle answered, ‘You need to cover this up. I don’t care what you think or want.’”
“Then nothing. Aunt Renata came home and her loud greeting interrupted them.”
My mind was buzzing with confusion. What did this all mean? The way Lucilla’s father spoke…it sounded like…
“Do you think my uncle is the guilty one?” Carmen said, putting my thought into words before I could. She paused, and for the first time, she looked at a loss for words.
“I don’t know. Maybe.”
“Probably not. Uncle Vittorio would never team up with criminals…”
“Except he did that already once.”
Lucilla’s words came back to my mind suddenly. She’d said her father had struck an agreement to save her town from the Mob. An agreement that covered up the nasty actions leading to my father’s death.
One deal is a gate left open for more.
That’s what my father always used to tell me when he warned me away from getting mixed up with shady people.
Carmen shook her head. “That was different. We all heard about that as we were growing up. It was a necessary bad to make an even worse evil go away.”
She was speaking like her cousin. Lucilla had explained it the same way, hoping I wouldn’t think bad of her father after she shared the truth with me.
I tried not to, I did…but now? Could Giuseppe be only a puppet of Lucilla’s dad?
I rubbed my neck. “What shall we do with this information?”
Carmen chewed on her lower lip. “I don’t know. That’s why I called you. I think you should come back to Cirella and speak to Giuseppe.”
“And I say we tell Lucilla everything. She has the right to know that it might not be her fiancé who’s the bad guy but—”
“Don’t even say it!” Carmen exclaimed, shifting her face so close to the screen that I could suddenly see the blond tips of her eyelashes. “As long as we’re only suspecting my uncle, we need to keep Luci in the dark about this. There could be several explanations for why he spoke to Giuseppe the way he did…even if none come to mind at the moment. But it doesn’t matter. My uncle is the person we all look up to, especially Lucilla. Ever since her mom died, her dad has been the center of her world. So if you care for Lucilla you won’t torture her with a half-truth.”
“But—” My opposition was cut short again.
“Didn’t you see how upset she’s been over this story involving Giuseppe? And she’s been having doubts about him ever since…” Carmen threw me an accusing glance and shook her head. “Never mind. Just imagine how Luci would feel if she thought her dad has betrayed her trust! ”
Carmen had a point. “If it turned out to be true and Lucilla found out, she would be heartbroken.”
Carmen clapped her hands. “Exactly.”
“Fine, I won’t say anything. Especially till we hear back from my source. Maybe Emiliano’s information will somehow clear her father…how, I’m not sure…then we’ll return to Cirella and I’ll speak to Giuseppe and—”
I stopped as Carmen ducked out of view.
I heard her call out. “I’m coming Aunt Renata. Just wait a second.” She popped her head back onto the screen. “Gotta go, Mario. Remember, keep this a secret. And if possible ask your informant—” She turned again and yelled, “I’m already there, Auntie. No need to come down.”
She hung up on me without a goodbye.
Mannaggia la miseria! What a colossal mess. I certainly didn’t expect to be caught up in such a whirlwind of action when I brought my drones to Cirella. How did it all come to this?
Lucilla’s warm eyes flashed into my mind. There. My answer.
I’d developed feelings for someone I shouldn’t have and now I couldn’t leave her to deal with this situation alone. Not when it was bound to hurt her.
But how was I supposed to go to the Vucciria market and act normal tonight? I was already having a hard time hiding my growing devotion from Lucilla, but now this? How was I to keep a skeleton of this dimension locked away? Even if I understood and also appreciated Carmen’s reasoning, was I betraying Lucilla’s trust by gifting her with a few days of ignorance about her father’s alleged crime?
From the few times Lucilla spoke to me about her dad, and the one time I saw the two of them together at her house, I could tell they shared a tighter knit relationship than the average father-daughter. Which would make it even more revolting if her father had been betraying Lucilla all along.
A knock on the door interrupted my mind-trip.
Darn it, is it already time? I wanted to keep brainstorming various conversational topics for tonight. I couldn’t end up speaking with Lucilla about anything even remotely related to her family or our investigation. If we did, I might not be able to keep a straight face.
After the second insistent knock, I stumbled to the door and opened it.
Lucilla stood at the doorway, smiling. “Did you take a nap, or what?”
As I gave her a slow once-over, I felt like the regional train had just crashed into my lungs. I had a hard time coordinating my exhalation and keeping my balance upright. Her light blouse had just the right amount of cleavage and fell to her waist with delicate ripples. My eyes took in the delicate curves of her hips and her bare calves, both accentuated by the white capri jeans she was wearing.
Lucilla must have mistaken my silence for something it wasn’t, and she gave me a questioning look. “Am I too underdressed for tonight? I wanted to put on a dress, but then I thought of the crowd we’re supposed to encounter and…well…I thought I might feel more protected in a pair of trousers…but I can change if…”
“I think you look good.”
Not to say ravishing or gorgeous.
The truth was, she looked so sexy in her casual attire that I would certainly need to watch out for her tonight.
Even if the warm sensation in my belly that threatened to spread south was a clear sign that I might be the biggest danger.
Lucilla gave me a smile. “Are you ready to go then? I’m famished.” She pointed at my hand. “Or do you still have a call to make?”
I realized I was still clasping my phone. I shook my head and quickly stuck it into my back pocket. If only the memory of my chat with Carmen were as easy to lock up in a safe place in my mind where it won’t interfere with our evening.
“I’m all set.”
I checked that my wallet was in my other pocket and stepped over beside Lucilla. “Let’s go and enjoy some true Palermo nightlife.”
After dinner, we strolled through Piazza Caracciolo. While this square was the unofficial food court and epicenter of La Vucciria market, Piazza Garraffello, where we were headed, had been described by our hotel receptionist as the ultimate essence of Palermo decadence.
I was quite curious to see what he meant by that.
As we ambled past countless street food peddlers presenting their delights on narrow little tables, faint beats of a tribal song drifted in the air. I couldn’t be sure whether they came from the Garraffello’s infamous outdoor dance floor—where no rules were the rules—or from a radio at one of the food stalls.
“Most likely, these people are all illegally placed,” Mario told me in a low voice, “but not even the police complain about them, because they allow you to fill up royally on a dish of meat or fish for less than ten euros.”
I eyed the stands with my brows raised. They were certainly not high-class, but they still looked inviting. Even if they didn’t seem to be kept in the most hygienic conditions. I could see a few flies buzzing around a loaf of bread filled with roasted porchetta.
Mario followed my glance. “Do you want to get something else?”
“Are you kidding? No. The last thing I need is to catch a stomach bug. Besides, the eggplant rolls must be still floating in my eyes,” I said, patting my blissfully full tummy. “I can honestly say that our dinner was the best meal of my life.”
Mario threw me a side-glance, his lips curling up. “Ah, so you enjoyed it that much? I couldn’t tell. Not even after your third serving.”
He winked and I stuck out my tongue at him. His grin widened in response.
He had every right to joke about me, of course. I hadn’t behaved in a very ladylike fashion during our dinner. I had probably eaten more than Mario had.
“I couldn’t resist. The food was just that good,” I mumbled apologetically.
Mario’s expression sobered. “Don’t apologize for having a healthy appetite, please. It was a feast to watch you devour that chocolate-filled cannolo in less than two bites.”
He sounded like he actually meant it. Which was weird, because if I’d been in that trattoria with Giuseppe, my fiancé would surely have criticized the inappropriate greed I’d exhibited. Giuseppe had very clear ideas about how women, not to mention his woman, were supposed to behave in public. I’d never pondered or minded his restrictive vision before. I just took it as a part of his personality that I needed to accept.
But since I embarked on this trip with Mario, I couldn’t help but notice how much more myself I felt around Mario than around the man I was supposed to marry.
Yes, entirely at ease.
I blinked at Mario and my heart gave a loud thump.
Okay, minus the arrhythmia.
To hide my physical reaction, I started to blabber. “You see, I thought I wouldn’t have any more culinary surprises after living with my aunts for over a decade. Especially Aunt Amalia. Her cooking is delicious. But the place you chose was so phenomenal that, despite my almost-bursting stomach, I couldn’t resist eating another one of their desserts. ”
Mario chuckled. “You’re right. Eterna Vita is one of the best places in town. Emiliano and his buddies come here at least twice a week.”
I swallowed and licked my suddenly dry lips.
Maybe I did have a glass too much of that marvelous Blood of Sicily?
“Ah, so it was him who told you about the restaurant…”
Mario’s eyes darted to mine. “Yes, it was.”
His voice had a guarded edge, as if he was afraid that the casual mention of his policeman friend might break the fragile equilibrium we’d kept up till now. Even if the actual truth about why we were in Palermo had been lurking in the shadows ready to conquer our minds, we’d managed to stick to a carefree tone and old memories throughout our entire dinner.
I’d made Mario tell me about his years in the US and about his encounter with his billionaire sponsor. Mario, in return, had asked me countless questions about my childhood and my father. Before tonight, I’d feared that my honesty about my father’s role in the cover-up of the fire in which Mario’s father had perished might make Mario think negatively about the most important role model in my life. I was glad to see that it wasn’t the case and that Mario was curious about my relationship with Pa.
“When do you think Emiliano will get back to us?” I murmured.
Mario shrugged. “Not sure. As soon as his snitch delivers that list he mentioned, I guess.”
I knew this, but I had asked anyway. Why?
Was it to break the awkwardness that had descended upon us?
Or to reaffirm to Mario that I was still interested in any news the tipster would reveal?
In truth, I’d long since decided that the informant could do nothing more than confirm the doubts I was already harboring about Giuseppe. All signs pointed in one direction and I’d be a fool if I ignored them.
Then we had arrived at the Piazza Garraffello and the sight awaiting us sidetracked my thoughts.
The moon illuminated the baroque palaces that were ruined during World War II, making their crumbling walls, now embellished with graffiti from the famous Swiss artist Uwe, glimmer in a silver hue.
A throbbing, violet beam moved across the decaying buildings. I traced it back to a giant stroboscope that stood beside a group of musicians on the southwest corner of the square.
They were playing an upbeat melody with their bongos. The singer, a black man in a bright orange robe, bobbed his head while he sang into the microphone in a foreign language. A mass of people were rubbing shoulders in the middle of the square and swaying to the melody. They looked like a single organism, maybe a giant serpent or even a single-celled amoeba, as their bodies rocked in synchrony to the beats.
Mario guided me to the Garraffello fountain, which had become the symbol of this square, and was the only quiet spot in the crowded surroundings.
A group of tourists passed by, and I heard a redhead say, “Palermo is a bit like an onion, don’t you think? Each mysterious layer makes you discover a different story. I love it.”
I was pondering how correct the woman was when Mario grabbed my elbow and turned me toward him. “Lucilla, you believe your fiancé guilty, don’t you?”
His abrupt gesture was as unexpected as his words.
What was I supposed to tell him? I couldn’t possibly lie.
I slowly nodded. “Yes, I believe he is.”
When I finally spoke, the words rolled off my tongue far too easily.
I should have felt bad speaking so calmly about Giuseppe’s guilt. But I didn’t. Also, the anger I had first felt about his betrayal wasn’t present. Neither was the sadness of the realization that he might have only asked me to marry him to secure a connection to my father.
Yes, if I was being honest, the only sensation brewing in my chest was…relief… Relief to be able to share with Mario what I thought about my fiancé.
Mario gaped at me, his jaw set in a hard line.
Oh, goodness, what if he is judging me for my lack of loyalty to Giuseppe?
I crossed my arms in front of my chest. “Don’t look at me like that. I’ve felt that something was off with Giuseppe for a long time now. His distant behavior, his obsession with his work, his exceedingly fast success with robbing our fire department of their role…they were all telltale signs. I just ignored them because I wasn’t ready to face the implications for our relationship. But now…”
Mario lifted a brow, his gaze darkening. “But now you are.”
There was a sad edge in his voice I didn’t understand.
“Now I am.”
My eyes locked with his somber gaze. His pupils were large, leaving only a faint splash of color around the ebony hue.
“What changed?” he asked.
You. The answer popped in my head without wanting. Should I tell him?
Wouldn’t it be unwise to confess to Mario what I’d avoided facing ever since he burst into my life like a meteorite?
“Tell me, please,” Mario insisted.
Ah, to the heck with it. I’m just going to say it.
I blinked back at Mario. “You want to know what changed? One day on the beach, I met a stranger. He gave me a reason and the strength to question the direction I was heading with my life…”
A moan escaped Mario’s throat. Its sound could have disappeared easily into the noisiness of La Vucciria, except it didn’t. Not for me. From the moment I’d told him the truth, my ears had shut out every sound except Mario’s loud exhales and hitched inhales.
His first moan was followed by another one. This time almost a growl. Frustrated and…angry.
Wait a minute. Why is he…is he…?
“Mario, are you upset with me for saying what I just did?” I asked.
He didn’t answer.
Why isn’t he speaking?
I took a small step toward him.
It was enough to bring my face so close to his that I felt his breath on my cheeks. Our proximity reminded me of how he’d almost kissed me on the first day when we met. And of that bold moment in my kindergarten classroom when I had almost kissed him.
I captured his eyes.
How will this moment end?
I knew I wouldn’t move away. I couldn’t even if I wanted to. Not when every cell in my body screamed for Mario’s lips.
Will he back off if I just…?
I leaned forward an inch.
Mario’s nostrils flared and I thought I heard him whisper, “Oh, darn it. I can’t…” but I couldn’t be sure because in an instant his mouth was on mine, and everything in my head blurred. My doubts about the rightness or wrongness of my action. My questions about where this might lead.
I didn’t care whether I was allowed to do what I was doing. If I wasn’t, then how could it all feel so darned natural and good?
Mario’s arms closed around my waist and he hauled me closer to him. He tasted deliciously better than the opulent cannolo Siciliano. I snuggled into his embrace and ran my hands through his thick hair.
He deepened his kiss, and it wasn’t long before I was floating above the ground, weightless and free like I always desired to be.
An annoying vibration against my hipbone brought me back to reality.
I moved back slightly only to realize it must have been Mario’s phone.
“Sorry,” he murmured.
“Are you going to answer?”
“I’ll switch it off. Just a sec.” He grabbed his phone from his pocket, and his eyes flicked to the screen. A swishing “oh” left his lips, prompting me to peek down too.
As my gaze fell on the screen, my body went numb.
One missed call. From Emiliano.
“Did he—” I mumbled, but was interrupted almost instantly by the beep of a message.
Mario furrowed his brows, throwing me a questioning look. “Shall I?”
“Sure, go ahead.” I smirked, but my facial muscles moved in an askew manner.
No wonder. I felt like anything but smiling.
Mario’s thumb hovered hesitantly above the symbol of the small envelope before he finally clicked open.
“Amico, I just got the list we spoke about.
Your man isn’t on it.
Give me a call tomorrow.
My ribcage shrank to the size of a chickpea, making breathing impossible.
It wasn’t the effect of the message about Giuseppe, per se.
I might have been surprised to learn that he didn’t have ties with the Levuccis, as I had been convinced of the contrary, but I was glad that he wasn’t guilty of the charges I’d accused him of.
No, it was the realization of what the news of Giuseppe’s innocence had brought about. Oh, cielo!
My eyes flicked to Mario.
He stared at me with a stony expression, as if waiting on how I would react.
Would it be wrong to tell him now that I didn’t regret our kiss?
It’s the truth.
After kissing Mario, and knowing how I felt when he pulled me close and our breaths mingled, I couldn’t possibly go back to Giuseppe as if nothing had happened. Even if my fiancé was clean, it didn’t change anything.
I swallowed twice, pushing the giant lump lower in my trachea. “Mario, I…what happened, it—”
Mario held up his hand. “I know, our kiss was a colossal mistake.”
I jerked back. How could he say that? Why?
Mario rubbed his forehead. “Giuseppe isn’t the villain we thought he was. We were wrong to go behind his back and investigate him. And I…I was wrong to exploit the situation tonight with you.”
“You didn’t exploit anything. Certainly not me.” My voice trembled from emotion.
I’m no victim in this. I wanted this every bit as much as Mario. Or likely even more, judging by his sudden remorse about our kiss.
Mario gave me a sad smile. “Lucilla, let’s be honest. I’m just a guy who is passing through your village. When my pilot project is finished, I’ll be gone. While Giuseppe? He’ll be staying and keeping your father’s legacy intact.”
Why was Mario bringing my father into this?
And why did he have to mention Pa with that weird grimace?
I shook my head. “I don’t get it, Mario. Didn’t this…” I pointed at my chest and then at his. “Mean anything to you?
Mario sighed. “It was…nice. But it’s easy for me to see that you only acted the way you did because you thought Giuseppe was working for the Levuccis. You thought your relationship was doomed. Except it isn’t.”
My heart dropped.
It’s easy for him to see, huh? Liar.
Mario must be putting his own feelings into my mouth.
He had never planned to stay in Cirella. He was okay with kissing me as long as he thought Giuseppe was Mr. Wrong. After all, what’s the shame in stealing a criminal’s girl, even if only for a fling?
Now, however, he must be worried about how our affair could influence his precious pilot project.
Bitterness and rage infused my cells. Mario didn’t feel the same way about me as I felt about him. This much was clear.
“Mario, I think it’s time to return to the hotel. We’ve learned what we came here for, so tomorrow we’ll need to travel home first thing.”
I didn’t wait for his answer but whipped around and began to shuffle my way back.
Getting through the crowd wasn’t easy, and despite the zeal driving me forward, Mario caught up with me quickly.
He closed his fingers around my wrist. “You’re angry with me. I’m sorry.”
I wiggled my hand out from his grip, keeping my eyes forward. “No, I’m not. You’re right. This whole trip was a failure. And tonight was the biggest mistake of it all. Let’s just get back to our beds, and tomorrow we can leave all of this behind, okay?”
From the corner of my eye, I saw a spasm ran through Mario’s cheek.
He nodded. “Fine. But please, stay close to me, okay? It’s after midnight, and the road to our hotel would be dangerous for you alone.”
We walked to our hotel side-by-side, without exchanging any words. The silence between us felt even heavier within the loud chatter that surrounded us.
I forced my head to stay clear, even if it was an arduous job.
I told myself that I could revive the pain and humiliation of tonight once I was in the safe fortress of my room. But not before. I couldn’t risk Mario noticing how much he had hurt me. If our kiss had meant only that to him—nice, but nothing special—then that’s how I would regard it too.
The grey building of our lodgment came into sight.
I dashed to the door and hurried up the stairs.
As soon as I slammed my door shut, I threw myself on the bed and buried my face into my pillow.
How could this night turn out such a disaster?
I’d almost confessed to Mario that I’m in… No! I shouldn’t say this out loud, not even in my head. Not when there wasn’t any chance of my feelings being reciprocated by him.
A quiet sob bubbled up from my throat at the hopelessness of my situation.
A fat tear rolled out from one of my eyes. Then another. And another.
Before I knew it, I was weeping and tossing in my bed like a possessed soul.
If only I hadn’t gone to the beach that day. If only Mario had chosen a different town for his drones. If only I hadn’t found that scrap of paper in Giuseppe’s warehouse…
My list of regrets went on and on…each thought like a stab into my chest.
My tears kept flowing and somehow, after some time, the hollowness in my heart eased a little.
Enough to drift into a restless, dreamless sleep.
For the second time, my eyes scanned through the dataset Lorenzo had downloaded for me. The captain called me in to extract the probability ratios for the three districts where he would like to increase the civilian surveillance systems.
Normally, it should have been an easy exercise, given that I’d written every piece of code in the drones’ software, but right now my brain wasn’t working the way I wanted it to.
Asking why would have been superfluous.
I knew the answer.
I leaned back on the captain’s comfortable office chair and rubbed my eyes.
Two days had passed since Lucilla and I came back from Palermo. Forty-eight painfully long hours since I last saw her kind eyes and heard her passionate voice.
At least in the real world.
Because in my dreams, and also in my thoughts, Lucilla was, for better or worse, a constant presence.
The memory of our kiss haunted me, creating such contradicting and giant waves of emotions in my soul that I constantly felt like an inhabitant on a tiny Pacific island, unable to decide which direction a tsunami would attack from.
In one moment, I was swamped with a joy I couldn’t even begin to describe. An elation buzzed through me, shaking and waking each dormant fiber in my being. These were the times when I allowed myself to recall just how soft Lucilla’s lips had been and how marvelous and right it had felt to have her in my arms.
But with the next crashing wave, I was knocked back to the harshness of the present. Guilt, frustration, and hollowness starting to chew away on any previous giddiness. In these moments, I realized that I’d overstepped the line I’d promised myself not to. I’d let myself be carried away by the affection and the magic of the moment, forgetting any consequences or rules of proper behavior.
Lucilla had been, and was still, engaged. I couldn’t be the one ruining her future with my actions.
The culpability I felt was fueled by Emiliano’s message, of course. I knew even before that it was wrong to desire Lucilla, given her situation, but in my heart I’d justified my feelings with the fact that Giuseppe was lying to her.
I’d hoped that once I managed to demonstrate this, their engagement would fall apart on its own. And then maybe…
I shook my head violently.
I’ve done it again, darn it.
I’d let myself be sucked into this crazy rollercoaster of thoughts where I could only switch between cars headed either to heavenly fantasies or to the darkest chambers of misery.
I needed to stop and focus on these frigging numbers again before the captain checked on me.
As if to prove my point, Lorenzo entered his office. He was dressed in bunker pants, heavy boots, and a simple white T-shirt. “How is it going in here, Mario? Getting a crack at it?”
“Sure.” I straightened and adjusted my tone to sound confident. “I’ll be done with it in a jiffy, I think.”
If I only manage to concentrate for longer than two seconds.
Lorenzo gave me a thumbs up. “Great. We’re preparing breakfast with the crew. Wanna have some?”
“Nope, but thanks. I ate before coming in.”
The captain’s brows rose, a very understandable gesture, given the early hour I’d arrived at their station.
“I’m an early bird,” I quickly added.
Also, I didn’t quite sleep last night, because the vision of a pair of aquamarine eyes and a dainty nose kept me awake.
I bit back my thought before I could turn my meeting with Lorenzo into a therapy session. Lorenzo struck me as a person with whom I could actually become friends, and I knew he wasn’t on the friendliest terms with Giuseppe, but I still didn’t trust him with my feelings about Lucilla.
“Well, then.” Lorenzo shrugged. “I’ll just leave you to work.”
He disappeared, and I heard him giving instructions to his engineer and a paramedic about securing some gear before going up to their kitchen.
Heavy footsteps, the clink of tools and couplings being joined, and then some more boot thuds told me Lorenzo’s instructions had been executed, and that I had been left alone on the ground floor.
After a few minutes, the vague smell of greasy bacon and eggs drifted my way.
I stifled a smile.
It seemed that the firefighters in Cirella favored the same hearty dishes to start their day as my father had. My dad would have also ditched the typical Italian cornetto and cappuccino for a salty meal any day of the year. ‘A man needs his protein to do this job,’ he had always grumbled to my mother who constantly worried about his cholesterol skyrocketing.
If only she had known that it wouldn’t be that which would tear him away from us.
The bitterness filling my mouth tasted different from what it usually did when I thought of his tragedy.
Ever since I’d begun to suspect that Vittorio Belvedere’s actions weren’t governed by his love for Cirella as he’d sold it to Lucilla and Carmen, but rather by self-interest, I’d had a harder time swallowing the possibility that Vittorio was an accomplice in covering up the details that led to losing my father.
If it were just me, I would go and confront that double-faced man.
But it wasn’t just me.
Vittorio was the father of Lucilla.
A wave of disgust washed over me, but I pushed it down. Nothing was going to bring back my father.
But Lucilla was alive, and her happiness was something I could protect. I couldn’t possibly hurt her by taking away the only other parent she had left.
I loved her too much to inflict such pain on her.
Love? Did I just really call it that?
The shock over my inner choice of words was still settling in when a hoarse baritone made me snap my head to the door.
Giuseppe stepped into Lorenzo’s office, carrying a folder beneath his left arm. His light-blue polo had a smudge of red soil, a rare shade that was typical for the Sittaca trail. When he noticed my eyes zooming in on the dirty spot, he shifted the folder to his other arm as if to cover it up.
“Hi, Giuseppe, how is it going?” I stood and walked over to him.
We shook hands.
“It could be going better, I guess,” he said in a flat tone.
“What’s the matter?” I asked, suppressing the alarmed edge in my voice.
There is no reason to think he’s referring to what I fear he might be.
Lorenzo told me that thanks to RT545, the drone I put on night-circling duty, his crew managed to get to three wildfires quicker than Giuseppe’s guys, while I was in Palermo. Hence Giuseppe could very well be upset for a reason perfectly unrelated to our trip.
Giuseppe kept his features composed. “My fiancée wants to break up with me.”
An earsplitting explosion echoed through my skull, and it took me a second to realize that it came from my own ribcage.
My heart had given a beat so strongly out of rhythm that it reverberated in my entire body.
I rolled my fingers toward my palm so that my nails had a good grip on the soft flesh of my palm. I dug in as strongly as I could, hoping the sudden pain might jumpstart my brain.
It didn’t work, so in lack of a better solution, I decided to reiterate Giuseppe’s words. “Lucilla wants to end your engagement?” As soon as I started speaking, some jumbled and entirely wrong neuronal connections fired up in my head, because I added a prying, “But why?”
The tiny muscles governing the tale-telling twitches of Giuseppe’s lips were hidden beneath his dark mustache, so I couldn’t immediately decide whether he found my last insertion intruding or if it was something he’d expected to hear.
Giuseppe sniffed. “She met someone else. Quiet frankly, it’s hard for me to believe that she would find any other man more attractive than me, but it’s her claim.”
I tried to get my head around this information.
This is all crazy, no, it’s beyond crazy. It’s pure madness.
Lucilla told me she thought our kiss was a mistake.
Then why would she come home and break up with Giuseppe?
Could it be that…?
My pulse picked up speed as the possibility flashed through me, but I forced it aside to examine the rest of the puzzling news I’d received.
Why is Giuseppe telling me this?
We certainly weren’t friends. We barely knew each other. And from all our previous interactions, I had gotten the distinct feeling he saw my drones as a threat to his business, instead of a potential improvement for Cirella’s fire alarm system.
So why would he sashay in here during the exact time he knew the crew were probably upstairs and reveal to me such a personal detail from his life?
He must have some point for doing it.
A chill ran down my spine.
“Do you know who the man is?” I asked him.
But what I really wanted to say was “Did she say it was me?”
Although I knew chances were this encounter could quickly acquire a riskier flavor if Giuseppe gave an affirmative answer, I still couldn’t stop myself from hoping he would.
Giuseppe shrugged, but it wasn’t a casual I-don’t-know-I-don’t-care gesture. It was a rough movement, almost robotic. “No. But it doesn’t matter. I know who he is. And it’s not happening.”
“What’s not happening?”
“Her leaving me.”
I shook my head. “Didn’t you say she ended things with you?”
“I said she wants to. But I’ll make her see she’s making a huge mistake.”
An uneasy anticipation knotted in my belly.
“How do you plan to do that?” I asked.
I’d sensed that there was something off with Giuseppe’s speech. It looked like my first assumption was the wrong one. No, his intention was likely something even more disturbing.
He wasn’t here to try to beat me up for kissing his fiancée, even if it was already clear from the way he gawked at me that he must know I was the mystery man.
Giuseppe whacked me in the chest. “With your help, Mario. I need you to talk sense into my fiancée, before she can share her nonsense with her aunts or Vittorio.”
“And why would I do that?”
“Because…” He inched closer to me, his odd melange of cold-friendly tone switching into a menacing hiss. “I know you’ve been snooping into my past. I also know you’ve been ogling my woman from the moment you set foot into Cirella. You owe me this.”
I didn’t know what surprised me more, his sudden honesty or the fact that he pronounced his first accusation with way more fervor than the second.
As if the fact that I was the man who caught Lucilla’s attention didn’t bother him half as much as the fact that I’d tried to dig up dirt about him.
Before the meaning of this could sink in, Giuseppe continued, “If Lucilla leaves me, I’ll stop protecting her. It’s only thanks to me that her family’s reputation is intact.”
“What are you saying?”
I could very well guess what he was getting at after having talked to Carmen, but I hoped Giuseppe might give more insight into this dark, entangled web of lies if I played a little dumb.
He was standing so close to me that I felt his espresso-“corrected” breath. The faint smell of grappa tickled my nostrils.
“I mean if Lucilla doesn’t marry me and help me become the next mayor, I’ll reveal her father’s dirt,” he barked.
I narrowed my eyes, evaluating in a fraction of a second whether I should start playing with open cards—or at least partially open—or keep pretending that I had no idea what he was talking about.
I opted for the former, because Giuseppe already knew that I’d asked questions about him. He also had to know about me and Lucilla. I couldn’t fathom how, but he had to.
“Are you saying Vittorio is in bed with the Mob?” I said.
An ugly smirk spread on Giuseppe’s face. “Now you’re talking the way I like. If you already know what a shameful truth I’m covering up just to keep Lucilla safe, then you should be ready to do everything in your power to help me. If you actually care for Lucilla, that is.”
“What makes you think she would listen to me?”
“If she is ready to leave me…I think she will. You just need to make sure she knows you don’t care for her. Once she realizes she has no future with you, she will give up on you.”
Give up on me?
A dazzling warmth flowed into my veins.
When Lucilla told me she thought our kiss was the biggest mistake, I thought…had I misinterpreted her? Could Lucilla be in love with me like I was in love with her?
Giuseppe wasn’t aware of the new direction my thoughts were taking. He insisted with his ultimatum. “I want you to speak to her today. If by tomorrow she isn’t begging me for forgiveness for her nitwit behavior, I’ll make sure Vittorio Belvedere is destroyed for life.”
His crude menaces jarred me out of my reverie.
I needed to tell Giuseppe that blackmailing me wasn’t a good strategy. I wasn’t a man who could be easily bent by force.
But, just as I opened my mouth, a loud chatter seeped into the room. “Breakfast time is over.”
Ah, soon the captain would be back in his office.
Giuseppe lowered his tone to a hasty whisper. “Will you do it? Or do you want Lucilla to carry the shame attached to the Belvedere name for the rest of her life?”
Maybe not by force.
But by love…
I studied Giuseppe’s face. I had to admit, he was playing me well. With the accent being on playing. Because I couldn’t rid myself of the feeling that there was still something I was not seeing in his sudden appearance. Other than the fact that Giuseppe was clearly badgering me into explicitly lying to the woman I loved, and pushing her back into his arms, he came across as someone who had a hidden agenda.
Should I have even considered helping him?
Giuseppe might not have been the criminal I originally thought, but he still didn’t seem to have the right reason for wanting to be with Lucilla.
Thus he didn’t deserve her.
And Lucilla might not even love him. She perhaps loves me.
The only thing I wanted to do in that moment was drive over to Lucilla and tell her that our kiss had been the most amazing, the most earth-shattering—
I needed all my strength to hold off the romantic fuzziness that was rapidly overtaking my senses.
If I don’t do as Giuseppe says, he could unleash a mighty scandal and endless heartache on Lucilla.
I couldn’t let that happen.
Maybe there was a third solution, a way to save Lucilla from a loveless marriage and her father from being exposed, but if there was I couldn’t see it.
So my best option was to agree to Giuseppe’s terms. “I’ll do it. But not for you, only for her.”
Giuseppe grinned. “That’s fair, my friend.”
He spit the word friend with a cynical, singsongy voice that made my blood boil.
Lorenzo appeared at the door.
His brows arched as he took us in. “Giuseppe? What are you doing here? Is it about last afternoon’s rescue?”
Giuseppe turned to him. “No, I just had a personal favor to discuss with our Mario. But we’re done. I need to head out now. Catch you both later.”
He ambled to the door.
Lorenzo stared at his back with a surprised grimace while he disappeared.
“What favor did you agree upon?” Lorenzo pivoted around, his eyes shifting into a concerned expression. “Marion, Giuseppe isn’t—”
He broke off and rubbed his chin.
“What did you want to say?” I inquired.
The captain shook his head. “I don’t like him very much, so my opinion is biased. But just be aware that any favor you do for Giuseppe, or he does for you, won’t come without strings attached, that much is for sure.”
“I know, thank you.”
The one he just asked me to do has my entire heart attached to it.
Lorenzo flashed a smile. “All right, then. Shall we take a look at your data?”
“Sure, let’s do it,” I murmured.
However, as we settled at the captain’s table, I kept obsessing about what I’d agreed to and whether I would able to go through with it.
I’d never been in love before. And now I had to go and look into the face of the woman for whom my heart throbbed and tell her that she didn’t mean anything to me.
What could be a worse plan for the afternoon than this?