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As the unforgiving Mediterranean sun burned my skin, I realized I should have put on a shirt that showed less cleavage. Why did I bother to look like I was going to some special event instead of to a meeting with an acquaintance?
Because that’s what Mario was. I couldn’t call him a friend. We didn’t know each other that well. The way I seemed to heat from head to toe when he was in close proximity would probably automatically disqualify him from this category anyways.
I slowed my Vespa and turned off the main road.
It was pointless to tell myself I wasn’t excited about meeting him. I was. My heart had been doing some kind of weird cha-cha-cha ever since his call. But it was okay as this excitement had probably nothing to do with any deeper feelings.
The guy was practically a walking supermodel. Even Lara told me so, and she had a very classy taste in men. After meeting Mario in the kindergarten, my friend couldn’t stop talking about his sculpted shoulders and high cheekbones. That’s when I realized I should be more forgiving with myself.
It was normal for my body to react to a man as handsome as Mario. Especially when he showed clear I-might-be-attracted-to-you behaviors with me.
Of course, after last time, I could also just be imagining things.
The bitterness of this last thought made me almost lose control of my scooter. The front wheel rolled over a large rock and shifted. I had just enough time to pull the breaks and plant my feet to stop the bike from falling.
Oh, Lucilla what the heck are you doing?
I drew in and out a few breaths and restarted the engine. In two minutes I’d reach the meeting place with Mario and it would be better to arrive without bruises.
Why did Mario ask me to talk outside of town?
I didn’t buy his comment about not wanting to waste a sunny day in a coffee shop. In Cirella, three hundred twenty days of the year were sunny. This is why our region was so prone to wildfires.
The reason Mario came to this town in the first place.
I growled. Maybe I should start one of the autogenic training courses that Carmen had attended. My cousin swore that since she’d started using those techniques, she felt more focused and driven.
Not that these were qualities she’d ever lacked . But still. I couldn’t let my brain wander about like it did just now. Sooner or later it was bound to return to those grey eyes and to that sizzling air that I felt between us.
I couldn’t be sure what Mario felt.
That was probably for the better. After all, I was getting married in a month. And as of now, I wasn’t behaving—no not behaving, since I haven’t actually done anything wrong—but I was definitely not thinking the way a good fiancée should.
What was it that kept me so confused about Mario?
It couldn’t be just his appearance. Giuseppe was also a dashing guy, maybe more on a rough, bulky side and not so much the sculpted Adonis like Mario was.
But looks were not the reason for my mild crush on this stranger.
Yes, sometime during the two sleepless nights since my encounter with Mario at the kindergarten, I’d allowed myself the liberty of admitting I had a crush.
So if not the physical things, then what?
My eyes moved to the horizon and I spotted Mario beside the large fig tree. He was standing, his hands pressed to his hips, and appeared to be studying something on the trunk. When he heard my engine, he snapped his head toward the direction I was coming from.
I slowed my scooter and parked beside his car. This was the first time I’d seen it. An old Fiat Doblo, a sort of minibus that had loads of packing space.
“So you weren’t kidding when you said you brought all your drones in your trunk, huh?”
“No, I wasn’t. This car might not be much when it comes to racing, but it can stash away things like no other.”
I climbed down from my scooter and took off my helmet.
The breeze blowing from the seaside felt like benediction on my wet skin. If it were my choice, I’d quit using helmets in the summer, but my father was so protective he would confiscate my bike if he knew what I was planning.
I stroked back my slightly wet curls self-consciously.
Mario eyed me and a smile tugged on his lips. “You look great, Lucilla.”
The deep edge to his voice made my cheeks heat up instantly.
Acquaintance. Just a casual acquaintance. With an incredibly sexy voice.
I hung my helmet on my scooter’s seat and walked to him.
He had turned away and pointed at the tree. “Luci & Peppe forever. That’s you, right?”
“Yes, Giuseppe did that when we graduated from high school.”
Why were my words coming out so husky?
I had no reason to feel flustered about this carving. It wasn’t telling Mario anything that he didn’t already know. I was engaged to Giuseppe and it was no secret.
So why did he sound almost displeased when he asked the question?
Mario stroked the trunk with his thumb, following each letter’s curve. He didn’t say anything, but he looked like he was thinking something.
Was it foolish of me that I was burning to know what our childhood declaration had unleashed in him? And even crazier that I wished I could trade places with the stupid trunk and feel his touch?
Mario turned to me, his eyes almost blazing. “Lucilla, I have something important to tell you. But after seeing this,” his eyes flicked to the tree, “I’m not sure I should say it.”
No, you definitely should.
My cells buzzed in anticipation. Perhaps I had misinterpreted his dismissiveness. Maybe Mario had unsettling feelings toward me also, but he didn’t want me to know them. What else could he want to tell me?
“Mario.” I took a step toward him. “Please, until now, you have been honest with me. Let’s keep it this way. Tell me, why did you want to meet me? Does it have to do with Giuseppe?”
His eyes grew wide and he gasped. “How did you know?”
I bit back the self-satisfied smirk threatening to appear on my face.
So I was right. Mario did want to kiss me. He just didn’t because he knows I’m engaged. Unfortunately, this realization filled me with more pleasure than it should have.
“Just a hunch. I thought it might be about him.”
I tried to summon up Giuseppe’s blue eyes to mitigate the effect of Mario’s grey irises on me. But the only memory that came to me was the cold tone with which my fiancé had addressed me today when I accidentally grabbed his phone thinking it was mine.
Right, Giuseppe certainly didn’t make it easy to keep dreaming about him. Not when he treated me like some nuisance he had to put up with in order to accomplish his plans of grandeur.
Mario rubbed his neck.
He did that when he was embarrassed, I had already observed it a couple of times. I wanted to put him at ease so I touched his arm. “Look, I won’t bite you, whatever you say, okay? I think it’s much better if we clear things up.”
The eagerness in my voice made me pause.
What was I hoping to get out of this? Even if Mario admitted to feeling the same odd connection between us that I did…what good would it bring?
Mario must have found my gesture encouraging, because he looked straight into my eyes and said, “Fine, Lucilla. I do prefer being honest with you. But before I tell you what I want, I would like to know something. Are truly in love with Giuseppe?”
My mouth dropped open.
Okay, I wanted Mario to cut to the chain and tell me what he felt…but this question? How was I supposed to answer to that?
I chewed on my lip to buy some time. The answer should have come immediately if I wanted him to believe me. What person needed this long to say whether she loved the man she was about to marry?
But since I couldn’t manage to shoot back a clear, “Of course I do,” I decided to explain. “We have been together for so many years now. We started dating in high school, and when we graduated, he moved to study in Palermo.” I pointed at the carving on the tree. “That’s when he made that. He moved back five months ago and proposed to me. So I said yes. It’s natural I said yes.”
Mario wrinkled his forehead. “So you have been together for years, but most of that time Giuseppe spent in another city? Really?”
I shifted uncomfortably at his comment.
One of the arguments I’d always used to calm my doubts about the engagement was that I’d known Giuseppe forever. But looking at it from Mario’s angle, it was indeed a short period of our adult lives that we were together. If I added all up, probably only a few months—maybe a year if I counted the five months since he came back from Palermo.
I shrugged to hide my annoyance. “Yes, so what? Giuseppe wanted to study in Sicily. He had some connections there that he thought would be useful for his academic advancement. But he visited us twice each year—and stayed even two or three weeks.”
Why was I justifying myself in front of Mario? It was an entirely normal thing in my village for people to study elsewhere. I probably would have gone to another city too, if I wasn’t afraid that my father would be too lonely and exploited by aunts. Especially Renate, who was always sitting on the fence, hoping to turn my father’s will into her own favor.
Mario nodded. “Sure, I get it. I also studied abroad. But I guess if I had a woman like you waiting for me, I would have come home every weekend.”
His gaze grew heavy, as if what he had said shocked him as well. He shook his head and added, “Sorry this last part was very inappropriate. I didn’t mean to insinuate anything about Giuseppe’s commitment to you.”
“It’s okay. I’m clear on how things are between me and my fiancé.”
Except I wasn’t.
Not when Mario’s words made my heart beat so fast that I feared it would break a few ribs.
Also the point he raised had been an ongoing argument between me and Giuseppe while he was gone. He used to tell me he was too tied up with his studies and some work he was doing on the side to travel home more often. He said if I loved him I had to understand. So I waited. But when he finally moved, things didn’t improve much. He was physically here, but still always too busy to spend time with me unless it involved my father or some social event.
Mario swallowed. “That’s what’s important, I guess. You need to know the man you marry, don’t you? Trust him and be sure that he is honest to you.”
I rubbed my temples.
This conversation with Mario was turning more disturbing by the minute.
Not only did Mario remind me about all the problems I had in my relationship, his very presence was like a poking into my heart. It made me feel things I wasn’t sure I’d ever felt—which, in itself, was reason enough to make me want to avoid him.
Yes, the wisest thing would be to go away now. I didn’t need to listen to what he wanted to tell me. If it had to do with Giuseppe, chances were it would only create more issues for me than I was able to deal with right now.
But, instead, what did I do? I asked, “What is that you wanted to discuss with me?”
Mario moved his neck in small circles a few times, then sighed. “Just for the record, I was about to let this slide. But since you ask, I’ll tell you. It’s about something my drones picked up…”
I described my findings and my subsequent phone call with Lucilla’s fiancé, trying to keep my tone objective instead of accusing. In my head I was almost certain that Giuseppe was involved in something nasty and that it was somehow tied to his desire to take over the city’s firefighting.
But I couldn’t press my suspicions on Lucilla.
From what I could observe till now, she had her own conflicts with Giuseppe. I could see her lying through her teeth when she said that she was clear on how things stood between her and her fiancé. She was having doubts about this engagement. I didn’t know if it was because of her feelings toward him or the way he behaved with her.
What man only came home twice a year to such a ravishing girlfriend? If I had the chance to have Lucilla for myself, I would spend each minute…
No, this was the kind of thinking that would get me into trouble. I had already been too forthcoming with her. If I revealed any more how her closeness made my senses go haywire, she wouldn’t trust the reason why I was asking for her help. She would think it was a scheme to get her guy out of the picture so I could conquer her heart.
Which could be a lovely side effect if this whole investigation turned up some results, but it mustn’t be my focus.
I needed Lucilla to check what Giuseppe was hiding. The success of my project depended on it.
Lucilla was massaging her eyebrows. “I can’t believe what you just said. If there were people on the trail, Giuseppe must be aware of it. His men patrol that area and all the access points towards the Sittaca.”
This was already information that nobody else had shared with me. I knew betting on Lucilla’s insider knowledge would be useful. If only I didn’t feel so guilty about asking her to spy on her fiancé.
“Yes, they do. I’m sure of it, because I overheard a conversation between Giuseppe and Tommaso, his right hand, the other day.”
I gave her a you-know-what-that-means glance without saying anything. I wanted Lucilla to arrive to the same conclusion as I did.
She gaped at me, chewing on her lips. I noticed that she had perfect pearl-white teeth that stood in high contrast to the raspberry color of her mouth.
“It means my fiancé lied to you, didn’t he?”
“I guess he did. But I don’t know why. Maybe he is working on some secret project he hopes to use to wow Lorenzo or your father. Or maybe he just didn’t want me to butt in on something operational…”
“Or maybe he’s covering up something?”
My neck muscles tensed.
Lucilla had said what I wished for her to realize. Now, what would she do with the information? Would she accept my request to…
“I need to find out why he didn’t tell me the truth, Lucilla.”
I held my breath.
Lucilla narrowed her eyes, which made her look like one of my favorite Caravaggio paintings. The sun creating a halo behind her head only enhanced this effect.
“Why are you telling me this, Mario?”
“Because I figured you might be the only other person in this town with as much interest as me in knowing what Giuseppe is or isn’t hiding.”
“And why do you think that?”
“Because you’re about to marry the man.”
She frowned and stared at me.
I held her glance, though it seemed to pierce a hole into my chest. There was something about the way her lashes batted quickly. Each movement seemed to tug at a chord in my chest.
A glint of resolution filled her eyes and she nodded. “Fine, I’ll find it out.”
“Will you be able to get it out of him without raising his suspicion? I wouldn’t want Giuseppe to think—”
“That you asked me to spy on him?”
I hated how it sounded from her lips.
My eyes darted to the carving on the tree trunk.
Suddenly an image of Lucilla snaking her arms around Giuseppe’s sturdy torso, his large hands grabbing on her slender waist flashed in my mind, and my stomach churned.
I didn’t want Lucilla to use her charms to get dirt on her fiancé. It had been a terrible idea to speak to her.
I was just about to withdraw my request, when Lucilla grabbed my arm. Her touch was so unexpected that a shock wave ran through my body, sending thrills to my head.
She bent forward, looking into my eyes with a serious expression. “Mario, so just we are clear, I’ll learn whatever it is that Giuseppe is doing. But, I won’t tell it to you unless it’s something that directly concerns your project. Are you okay with this?”
She was so close I could feel her flowery perfume, an intoxicating mélange of amber and roses that was by now all too familiar for my nostrils.
I nodded. “No problem. I’ll be glad for whatever help you can give me. I want to make sure that my alliance with your fiancé won’t cost me my dream. I’m happy you agreed to help.”
Lucilla’s face softened. “I wouldn’t want you to miss out on your dream. I think what you’re doing is great and our region needs it.”
I couldn’t tell what it was that was blinding my judgement. I had already decided that my behavior with Lucilla shouldn’t cross the limits of friendship. I almost made a serious mistake with her twice, and now there was even more on the line for me.
But her kind words, and especially the smile that accompanied them, made me ignore my previous good judgement.
I reached out and hauled her into a hug. I tried to sell my outburst as a friendly gesture, but I knew deep down it wasn’t that.
I needed to feel Lucilla’s body close to mine, to sniff in her hair and hold her, even if only for a second. It was a little sin that I allowed myself.
Lucilla stiffened in my arms at first, but then she pressed her head to my chest and closed her eyes as if she also enjoyed my closeness.
I bent to her neck and whispered into her ear. “Thank you for doing it, Lucilla.”
Goose bumps covered her skin where my breath reached her and the sight sent quivers of excitement to my belly.
I knew I was going too far, but I added, “You know, if things were different I would really want to…”
Lucilla twitched and moved back. She quickly wiggled out of my embrace. She took three steps back, keeping her eyes on the ground. Her cheeks played in a lovely pink. “I’ll go now. I’ll call you if there is any news. Till then act with Giuseppe as if nothing has happened.”
She turned and walked to her scooter. In a second, she was driving away on the sandy road back to Cirella.
I moved to the tree and banged my head against it.
What. An. Idiot. I just had to add that foolish comment, didn’t I? It had been such a unique moment to hold her in my arms. I’d felt light and giddy.
I opened my eyes and realized my forehead was hitting exactly the letter ‘G’ in the carving.
I pulled back and stared at the name, my brows drawing together.
Giuseppe. Well, soon I’ll find out how much of a liar you are.
I would need to treat the entire agreement with Lucilla as a professional favor.
For some reason the discovery wasn’t only interesting me now for my business. No, no. I was even more eager to uncover Giuseppe’s secret, because in the deepest corner of my soul, I hoped it might create an obstacle for him and Lucilla.
I tapped my hand on the trunk once more.
For now, the die is cast. I would just need to wait and see what it would bring back to me. Hopefully, success for my project.
And maybe, if I was very lucky — Lucilla.
“What in heaven’s name are you wearing, Carmen?” I asked my cousin as she stepped beside me.
Her usual flowery summer pants and flats were gone. She had put on some kind of weird man’s shirt in a grey shade and a pair of black jeans. Her forehead was already covered by sweat pearls. No wonder. The temperature, despite the late evening hour, was still more than steamy.
Carmen arched her brows in an isn’t-it-obvious manner and replied in a hushed voice, “You said we’ll be playing detective, so I dressed for the role. But let’s be clear, I don’t want tonight to be like one of those Sherlock Holmes stories where I only get to play Watson, okay?” She pointed at her chest. “I want real action. I want to be Sherlock.”
I buried my face into my palms before whispering. “Fine. Sherlock.”
Perhaps it had been a mistake to enlist my overzealous cousin to help me spy on Giuseppe. Carmen knew no mediocrity. She always strived for excellence, no matter what she did. Be it the perfect hue for my engagement party napkins, a school assignment, or just a simple dinner to be whipped up. Carmen would give it all she got. I should have guessed she would mold into the role of a detective without a problem.
I peeked at her grinning face from between my fingers. At least one of us was looking forward to this crazy adventure I’d decided to embark on.
Why did I agree to help Mario?
As soon as the question flashed in my mind I knew my answer. There was no way I could say no to those pleading eyes. Especially not when they made me feel like the center of the universe when they were looking at me.
Also—and this point was my emotional safety blanket in this situation—I had to find out the truth about Giuseppe. As Mario had put it, I was going to marry this man. If he was covering up something weird in connection to the fires, I needed to know.
What would I do with the knowledge? Mhmm… I could think about that later.
Carmen rocked back and forth on her toes. “Are we going in or what?”
My eyes flicked to the three story building that looked like a half-demolished warehouse. “Do you think it’s safe already?”
“I think it’s empty. I can’t see any lights on.” Carmen squinted and let her gaze travel across all the windows. “Yes, definitely empty. But are you sure it’s the right place? It doesn’t look like much.”
“Yes, I’m certain.”
Giuseppe’s team had another office, more central in Cirella, and also more fancy looking. But I happened to know that if I was to find anything worthwhile about Giuseppe’s business, this was the location I needed to check out. I’d overheard him a few times mentioning this building as their true base.
Come to think of it, I should have found it strange that he kept a squeaky clean office but stashed his crucial files in a dump. But I’d never really paid attention to how my fiancé organized his business. I knew he preferred it that way. Also my father was involved with Giuseppe’s career so I figured he would control whether Giuseppe, in his wish to succeed, was using the correct tools.
“Okay, I’m ready.” Carmen rubbed her hands then adjusted the belt in her jeans.
“You’re only missing a beret to complete your streetboy look from the movie The Palermo Connection,” I snorted, bemused.
Carmen pointed at my red spaghetti dress. “If someone passes by, who is more likely to be spotted, you or I?”
Oh, no she was right. I should have chosen a less vibrant color for snooping around.
But then again, if somebody realized there was movement in the building, we would be in trouble no matter what. Red dress or no red dress.
“We just need to make sure nobody sees us.” I pulled a flashlight from my purse. “I brought this so that we don’t need to use the central lights.”
Carmen winked at me. “Marvelous thinking. You’re also a born spy, if I may say so.”
I couldn’t reciprocate her grin. I was suddenly getting cold feet about this plan. “Perhaps I should have simply asked Giuseppe about that weird image Mario spoke to me about…” I murmured.
Carmen put her hand on my shoulder. “Luci, when I said the same thing to you, you told me that he might lie to you. You wanted to be sure that you know the truth. That’s why we are here, remember?”
Despite knowing what the reason for my action was, and that it was unavoidable if I wanted to sleep serenely at night, my throat was parched and my heart beat out of its normal cadence. “Yeah, I remember.”
Carmen stared at me with her eyes narrowed. “I really hope you’ve told me everything. And that the fact that your new…uhm friend, Mario is a hottie had nothing to do with—”
“No. NO. Nothing.”
Oops. My voice came out slightly louder than I wanted. We were trying to keep a low profile, but if anyone was nearby they would have surely heard my squeak.
Carmen shot me a suspicious look but she didn’t comment on my obvious slip.
It was better this way. My cousin was the closest person to me in my family but she had dedicated a substantial amount of her time to my wedding. I didn’t want her to feel that I was letting my judgement be influenced by a sexy stranger.
Even if it might have been the case. At least a little bit.
I grabbed her wrist and pulled her toward the entrance. “Let’s go.”
We hurried across the deserted street. The door of the office building was locked, but I had borrowed Giuseppe’s keys earlier this evening.
If we were quick he would never find out. He had gone to celebrate one of his buddy’s birthdays so he wouldn’t return to his apartment before midnight. I’d have plenty of time to sneak in and put the key back into his desk. That is, if we got inside fast.
I unlocked the door with slightly trembling hands. As the lock clicked, and we stepped inside, a metallic voice filled the entry hall.
“Please authorize yourselves. Please authorize yourselves.”
The bewildered groan had hardly left my throat, but my cousin was already pointing at the keyboard on the left wall. “I think we need a code too, Luci. Six numbers if you can trust the flashing lights.”
I gaped at the bright orange beam on the display. “Six numbers…how should I know what Giuseppe used as a code?”
Why did he need all this security anyways? His company was only doing firefighting not atomic bombs…
Carmen pushed a few keys.
The alarm beeped and the same metallic voiced echoed once more. “Access denied. Two more tries left. Please authorize yourselves.”
“Really?” I asked her with growing desperation. “One, two, three, four, five, and six?”
“What?” She shrugged. “It’s my screen lock code.”
I stepped over to the keyboard to prevent Carmen from trying any other combinations. I didn’t know what would happen if we got all three tries wrong but I assumed it wouldn’t be pretty. The least we would need to run away fast with our tails between our legs before security showed up.
No, no. I had to take an educated guess at what the numbers might be. What would be important enough for Giuseppe to use it as a password?
I chose the date of our first date. I used that everywhere in my computer.
But apparently, I was alone in my romanticism because but access was denied again.
Of course. It would have been too easy if he used something important with regard to our relationship. Just another sign that I might be more involved than he is.
“Luci, we have one more go. Should we maybe abort? We could think of another way to get the information you need. Maybe steal Giuseppe’s laptop?”
Carmen’s voice jarred me out of my gloomy thoughts.
“No, Carmen. None of us is a computer wizard. Also, it would be far more risky. I don’t want Giuseppe to find out I’m looking into his work stuff. Mario’s hunch might be nothing and then I would just create problems with my fiancé.”
More than I’ve already got.
My previous bitterness returned, but this time with a strong flavor of guilt as only the fleeting mention of Mario’s name made my cheeks heat.
“It’s your call, Luci. If you want to try another combination then go for it. But please think of something that represents a turning point in Giuseppe’s life. Something that would be memorable enough to be—”
“I’ve got an idea,” I exclaimed and put the numbers in without hesitation.
“Access granted. Please enter.”
Carmen and I clapped hands. Then she asked, “What did you use?”
“The 12th of April 2014?”
I nodded. “Yes. The day Giuseppe left for Palermo. Apparently that was the turning point that he wanted to remember here.”
I lit my torch and turned it toward the corridor. “Let’s go. In the phone call I heard that Giuseppe ordered some files to be put on the second floor. That’s where we should start.”
We walked through the dark corridor. Our steps reverberated from the concrete walls with force.
“It’s freaky, right?” Carmen whispered behind my back.
“Yeah, it wouldn’t be my favorite program for a Friday night.”
“You would much rather have a drink with Mario, wouldn’t you?”
I stopped in my tracks and Carmen bumped into me.
I whipped around and lifted the torch so that it illuminated our faces from below. “Why did you say that?”
“Say what? That it’s freaky in here? Because it is. All the surrounding darkness and the—”
“No. That thing. About Mario. That I would want to date him…”
“That’s not what I said. Even if…” Carmen rubbed her chin. “It might have been my underlying point.”
“Why, Luci? Because I’m not blind or stupid. I can see that ever since this guy turned up at your engagement party you have been acting strange. I admit he is quite a sight for sore eyes, but, jeez, you’re about to be married…”
My shoulders slumped and I sighed. “I know. And believe me it isn’t his looks. At least not entirely. It’s something about him. Mario…he just seems so different. Kind and generous. And he sees me, Carmen. When he talks to me he actually looks at me and wants to listen to me. Giuseppe hasn’t done that in…I don’t know…forever.”
Carmen’s eyes widened and her dark irises reflected the light even more, creating an almost inhuman allure to her face. “Oh, poverina. I didn’t realize things were going that bad with Giuseppe. I thought you guys just had the typical cold feet thingie before the wedding.”
I sucked air into my cheeks and blew it out. “I’m not sure what Giuseppe has. He has been a different person ever since he returned from Palermo. I think somehow, on some level, he must realize this too. Otherwise why would he have picked his departure date as the security code for this building?”
“Good point. Luci… I don’t want to put more pressure on you, okay? I know Uncle Vittorio wants this marriage to happen. Also our aunties are fixated on it.”
“Yeah, fixated doesn’t even begin to cover their obsession with it, but yes.”
Carmen chuckled. “Right. But even if everyone around you seems to think that marrying Giuseppe is the right thing to do, I…I would be fine with whatever you decide as long as you’re happy.”
My heart leaped.
I’d assumed that due to her invested efforts, Carmen would try to convince me to forget my doubts regarding Giuseppe. I even suspected that she agreed to join me tonight so that she could keep an eye on my findings and coach me into showing acceptance toward whatever I found.
Shame wormed through my heart. I’d underestimated my cousin’s love for me and her good heart. Big time.
“Thank you, Carmen. You’re the best.”
“And the better dressed spy, admit it.” Carmen winked and I giggled.
“Sure you are, Sherlock. But let’s continue our search, otherwise your outfit will be for nothing.”
We continued to the stairs that led us to the second floor.
The first room we came across wore a sign, “Deposit”.
“Let’s try this,” said Carmen.
As we entered, I noticed one large shelf filled with boxes. Each one bore the name of a fire that we’d had to endure in our region. There were far more than I was aware had happened. Or maybe some of the cases they documented stretched over Cirella County’s boundaries.
“How shall we proceed?” I asked.
“Let’s each grab a box?”
“Excellent idea, Sherlock.”
I stepped over to the shelf and grabbed a box with the label “LaVerde”. It had been one of the biggest fires in the past year.
Carmen took another one and sat down on the floor. She pulled out her phone and used its light to examine the box’s content.
I followed her example. With the flashlight among my lips so that both of my hands were free, I flipped through the pages of documents. Many were maps of the region, descriptions from the witnesses, and there was even a copy of the official firefighting closure report.
But what caught my eye was a printed one-page email.
It was sent by Giuseppe to a certain Riccardo Levucci.
Levucci, Levucci…this name sounded familiar, but I couldn’t pinpoint where I’d heard it.
I scanned through the text.
Giuseppe was informing this Riccardo he would come down to meet him personally as soon as possible, probably at Easter.
My eyes flicked to the date when it was sent. This year in March. So the Easter Giuseppe was talking about was his last trip to Palermo…
Oh, tutti santi spiriti…
I froze with the paper in my hand as the room began turning around me.
I knew who Riccardo Levucci was. But Giuseppe had sworn to me he would never have anything to do with that man or his clan.
I glanced again at Giuseppe’s closing line.
Stammi bene, amico.
Take care, friend? The bile rose high in my throat.
Oh, Giuseppe, Giuseppe. What have you done?
It was clear that my fiancé didn’t just lie to Mario. And if this email wasn’t forged, then the dimension of my fiancé’s deception was much larger than I’d have thought possible.
But why? Why would Giuseppe do that?
Carmen’s chirpy voice woke me from my thoughts. “Did you find anything, Luci? This stuff here isn’t useful at all. Nothing in relation to the Sittaca trail.”
I quickly crumpled the paper in my hand and stuck it into my purse.
I couldn’t share my discovery with Carmen as long as I didn’t know what it meant or whether Giuseppe had actually joined forced with the Levuccis.
I needed time and space to think this through.
I cleared my throat. “Nothing for now. But we don’t have much time left. I need to return the key to Giuseppe’s house before it gets too late.”
Carmen frowned. “What a pity. Sherlock never leaves empty-handed.”
“Maybe we’ll come back another day. Or I might try the computer trick you proposed. We’ll get to the bottom of this Sittaca problem soon, cousin.”
“Well, fine. But if we do another spying trip, I might even use a pair of fake glasses. This flashlight is blinding.”
“Yeah, you do that,” I murmured while I jumped up.
My head was dizzy and my fingers were numb as I secured the box’s cover after stuffing back all the papers in it.
All but one.
We put the boxes back on the shelf.
The copy of the email I’d stolen felt like a lead ball in my bag. Heavy, immensely heavy.
There was only one question plaguing me as we hurried toward the exit. Could Giuseppe have a plausible explanation for why he had befriended that man?
Once the building’s door closed behind us, I sighed.
Carmen smiled and hugged my shoulders. “We were great, Luci. Now let’s go home and watch A Game of Shadows.”
I let myself be pulled toward our scooters, my mind still swirling around my finding.
I had hoped something useful would turn up from our search, but this potential connection between the man I wanted to marry and the man I couldn’t despise more shook me to my core.
Carmen got on her white Vespa, put on her helmet, and said, “I’ll drive home first. You should wait like five minutes before following me. So that nobody gets suspicious of us.”
“Sure.” I nodded absentmindedly. I didn’t mind being the one who had to wait. I wasn’t sure I was in the right state of mind to drive yet. I knew I needed to decide what I would do about this email.
But I couldn’t ask Giuseppe whether it was true, for sure. We might be engaged but the question, “Are you working for the Ndrangheta?” would surely not be received well.
If he was in bed with the Levucci clan then…
Maybe I should speak to Pa? No, I couldn’t do that. Not unless I had some major proof. If I raised any suspicion about Giuseppe to my father he could never look at my fiancé with the same eyes even if the news turned out to be false.
And I still hoped in the bottom of my heart that the email I was carrying was only some kind of joke…a misunderstanding…or that the meeting Giuseppe referred to never happened.
But what if it did?
Was I about to marry a man connected to one of the Mob families?
I scratched my head with both hands. The scribbling noise told me that I might be damaging my cuticles or my scalp, but the violence of my gesture was somehow soothing to my soul.
I needed to speak about this with someone who wasn’t connected to Cirella or my family…
Someone who would understand the ramifications of this situation.
Mario’s grey eyes came to me without me consciously focusing on them.
Yes, I needed to speak to Mario. He might be able to advise me in this situation.
But would he be able to remain objective? I suspected that he already disliked Giuseppe.
He would have to be. I had nobody else to turn to. I would ask him to keep my suspicion a secret and would need to hope that Mario was indeed the honest man I’d assumed he was.
I reached into my bag and my fingers tightened around the piece of paper.
Even if my judgment about male sincerity didn’t seem very promising as of now…
The blond waitress with the yellow teeth and a name tag that said Tania had been standing beside our table for a good minute now. She had coughed at least twice after handing us the menus, but neither Lucilla nor I had acknowledged her presence yet.
My excuse for the impolite behavior was the bombshell Lucilla had just dropped on me. I could guess that hers was caused by the uncertainty of not knowing how I would react to it. After all, it wasn’t just any finding that she had unearthed. Giuseppe potentially being a member of the Mob was not something I expected at all when I enlisted Lucilla to help me.
Of course, Tania couldn’t care less whether we had a justified reason for ignoring her pressing need to know what we would order. “If you’re not done yet, I’ll be back later,” she said without trying to hide her irritation.
She didn’t wait for our answers, simply turned and walked back to the kitchen.
As soon as she was out of earshot, I bent forward to Lucilla. “When I asked you to see what you could learn about the Sittaca trail, I didn’t imagine you would go all Sherlock Holmes-y and break into your fiancé’s storage facility.”
“Well, it was Carmen’s idea. My cousin has always been fascinated with old detective stories. I guess if she hadn’t been born as a girl in our family, she would have tried to join the police force. I regard myself lucky that she didn’t push a Hercule Poirot-style deduction game on me when we got out of the deposit room, otherwise I couldn’t have hidden the truth from her. She is on top of her game when it comes to astute observations.”
“So you didn’t tell Carmen that—”
“No. Absolutely not.” Lucilla shook her head so fervently that her locks flew back and forth like the mane of a wild horse. “If, and only if, I can prove that this email,” she pointed at the wrinkled paper in front of her, “actually means something, then yes. In that case Carmen is the first person I’d want to talk to. But I can’t risk her starting to believe something about Giuseppe that isn’t true. I’m not even sure she could keep the discovery to herself. In her kindest intention to help me, she might end up going to my dad or something. If it turns out a farce, and I do get married to Giuseppe, then it’s best to keep quiet about this.”
If—this little word caught my ear.
Part of me wanted to dwell on if further and explore how come Lucilla was speaking in conditional tense about her upcoming marriage, but the wiser part of me, the one that knew that I had no right to be nosy about Lucilla’s private life, managed to take over.
“I understand.” I nodded. “But you can’t be verifying the truthfulness of this fact alone. What you’ve done so far to clear up this issue is already beyond courageous. And bold.”
The idea that Lucilla had put herself in danger because I’d asked her to made me feel like punching myself in the face.
“Okay, so what do you suggest I do?” She furrowed her brows and even that frown looked adorable on her.
No, Mario, focus. I needed to concentrate to find the right answer to her question. Lucilla had come to me for guidance.
Only I didn’t know what to tell her. Why was that? The Mario I knew before coming to Cirella would’ve had several ideas on how to proceed. He would’ve focused on the one that got the most desired results without hesitating.
But it seemed that in the rather short time I’d known Lucilla Belvedere, a big chunk of my neural connections had undergone a dramatic change. I never assumed it could happen to me. I thought our essential values and behavioral triggers were supposed to be hardwired when we turned adults.
Or even sooner. I for one knew exactly who I was and what I wanted to achieve after my father died. And I had never questioned my goals and motivations no matter what crossed my way. I wasn’t dismissive of the others around me, but they were never my focus.
At least, not until I set foot in Cirella and met Lucilla on that beach.
Now it was as if her image—not only her looks but her words, the sound of her laugh, even her scent—was carved into the deepest core of my soul making me feel responsible for whatever happened to her. As if somehow it was she who belonged to me.
Yes, she was slowly becoming the lens through which I looked at my own work. I no longer thought first about what would serve the success of my project, but about whether what I planned would be something that could hurt Lucilla.
I realized it was messed up. Lucilla clearly did not belong to me. Building my actions around her well-being would eventually slap me in the face.
But I couldn’t stop myself.
Just this morning before Lucilla called me, I even began pondering whether I should stop with my project and leave Cirella. It would be exhausting to find another suitable location to deploy my drones. I had spent months studying this area’s geography.
Clearly my presence was a disturbance in Lucilla’s life. If it wasn’t for me, she would be a happy bride preparing for her nuptials. Instead she was investigating whether her soon-to-be-husband was a criminal.
Not a situation I wanted to get her into.
But if it weren’t for you, she’d be marrying a criminal. Or a potential criminal.
The part of me who jumped from joy at hearing Lucilla speak about her wedding plans in conditional tense came back to me.
And this time I couldn’t ignore its voice. I might have gotten Lucilla into this mayhem but…could it be a good thing? After all, I couldn’t allow this wonderful woman to spend the rest of her life with a maffioso.
Lucilla cleared her voice and I realized I’d gotten sucked into my confused mental state for a socially unacceptable amount of time.
“I’m sorry, Lucilla,” I said. “I needed to reflect on the best way to approach this problem.”
“Did you come up with something? You looked pretty sunk into your thoughts.”
Her voice, for the first time since we had arrived at the trattoria, was slightly bemused.
I tapped my temples. “There is just too much stuff going on in there right now so the wheels are turning slowly. But, yes, I have a sort of idea of what we could do. But first, would you tell me everything you know about this Riccardo Levucci?”
“Okay.” Lucilla nodded.
From the corner of my eye, Tania reappeared, throwing us a questioning look.
I shook my head to indicate we weren’t ready to order yet. She shrugged, pursed her lips into a suit-yourselves grimace, and went back to the kitchen.
Lucilla bounced her glance around as if she was checking that nobody would hear her.
“I think it’s safe to speak,” I reassured her.
We were the only customers in the trattoria. Which might have had to do with the fact that it was six in the evening. Not even kids were served dinner that early in the South.
Lucilla drew in a breath. “So, Riccardo Levucci…I know the Levuccis because they’re a famous, or rather feared, family in our regional mafia-like organization.” She blinked at me. “How familiar are you with the mobs in the South?”
Her question surprised me.
I, like every Italian, knew that our country, especially in the South, was still very much impacted by organized crime. The whole world seemed to equate Mafia with our nation’s name—and not entirely mistakenly.
“I think I know my share of facts. Even if I was born in the North and never personally confronted with a reality where mobs are super active. Or at least openly visible.”
“Fine. But didn’t you say you lived abroad also?”
“Yes. After my father died, Mom moved us to the States where her sister lives. I got my firefighter and engineering degrees there. It was also where I met my friend, Gabe, who hooked me up with Ryan, my project sponsor.”
Lucilla chewed on her lip and nodded. “Okay, then just to be sure, let me give you a quick refresher on our bad guys. In Sicily we have the Cosa Nostra and Stidda, in Naples the Camorra, in Apulia the Sacra Corona Unita and here, in our beautiful Calabri, we are doomed through the activities of the ’Ndrangheta. Almost anyone who counts for something down here has a tie to one of these groups.”
My throat prickled as a question formed inside me. “Does that mean your father…?”
I felt bad for asking this but after what she’d said I couldn’t avoid it. Vittorio Belvedere had been Cirella County’s head for almost a decade.
“Gosh, no. My father is maybe one of the few who managed to withstand the pressure from the ’Ndrangheta. He never quite told me the details, but I know that after that famous fire…you know the one where your father was…”
I swallowed, stopping the familiar ache in its tracks. “Got burned, yes? What about that?”
“That fire was huge, with obvious traces of an intentional cover-up of some kind. There was a risk of raising an enormous scandal and investigation. My father struck a deal, the only one he ever allowed himself to do, with Antonio Levucci.” She held up her hand. “Yes, before you ask, he is the father of Riccardo Levucci. The man who had led the local ’Ndrangheta branch at the time promised that if the county would just mourn the deaths but stop looking for the responsible party, they would take their business out of Cirella forever.”
“An example of striking a deal with the devil?”
Lucilla nodded. “Yeah, but it ensured that my father could be rid of corruption for the long term. He finally had free hands to choose the council members, as well as put trustworthy men into the key positions. For the Mob, it wasn’t a huge loss granting our little region a free pass. They’re too focused on smuggling drugs abroad anyways. But it was an enormous gain for us in Cirella. After the initial clean-up, we’ve been living in a small happy bubble.” Lucilla blinked at her engagement ring. “That’s why Dad is so happy that I’m marrying Giuseppe. He’s getting old but he needs to ensure he leaves his heritage in the hands of a worthy man. In honest hands.”
The last words rolled off her tongue as if she were tasting poison.
I patted her hand. “Don’t worry, we’ll make sure your father gets his wish.”
Despite the heavy topic, a sensation of lightness invaded my limbs as I caressed her soft skin. Even if touching her felt good—no, it felt like something that my mother would call pure bliss—I kept my gesture brief.
It was for the benefit of both of us. Or maybe more for mine. After all, I couldn’t be certain whether Lucilla had a similar longing for me as I was developing for her.
Lucilla’s eyes darted to mine. Was the odd gleam in them her despair about the situation? Or was that dark emotion in relation to the charged air between us?
“And how shall we do that?” she asked.
“Simple. We’ll need to go to Palermo and find out the truth.”
“What?” Lucilla jerked back, her eyes widening. “Are you insane?”
Was I? Possibly, yes.
But the trip to the town where the two men had supposedly held their meeting at Easter seemed like the only possible starting point.
“No, I’m serious.” I said. “I know a couple of people in Palermo. Good and honest folks. One of them is a policeman. If this Riccardo still lives there, the police might have a tail on him or something. I don’t know…it’s a long shot but it could work.”
Lucilla shook her head. “I know that Riccardo Levucci went to the same university as my fiancé. We saw him there once when I visited Giuseppe. But whether he still lives there? No idea.” Her eyes moved to her hands again and her chin twitched. “You know what’s funny? I was the one who pointed Riccardo out to Giuseppe. I knew who he was, because Dad once showed me a picture of him. I remember saying to Giuseppe, ‘keep your distance from this man and promise me you’ll never become anything like him’”.
She raised her head and I saw that her eyes were slightly moist.
My heart squeezed at seeing her sorrow.
“And wanna know what he said? He promised he wouldn’t. He promised…”
Lucilla’s voice turned into a quiet sob.
I shifted over to her and threw my arm around her shoulder. I pulled her into a tight embrace against my chest.
I prohibited my mind from bathing in the beauty of having her this near. I wanted to be there for her, not be focused on how darned good she smelled or how her body heat was making my blood rush.
Lucilla stayed in my hug for a minute then straightened. “Do you think your police friend can ask for surveillance tapes and such?”
Her face still glistened wet but her eyes shone with a light of determination.
“Yes, I guess. Why?”
“I know where Giuseppe stayed when he travelled there in April. One day his charger broke so he made me call the landline of the hotel. I still have it memorized. Maybe he met with someone in the hotel lobby…maybe even Riccardo himself.”
“Possible. So what do you say, could you make yourself free for three days and take a trip with me?”
I hated that this question made my heart pound. I wasn’t inviting Lucilla on a vacation. We were going there together simply to find out more about her fiancé’s shady connections. She was still engaged.
She nodded. “Yes, I think so. I’ll tell them at home that I have a training I need to attend. At work, I could say I need a few days off because of the wedding arrangements.”
“Won’t those lies cross?”
Lucilla waved. “Not really. Nobody ever visits me in the kindergarten. Giuseppe hates children. He isn’t like you.” She clapped her hand to her mouth as if she didn’t mean to say this last part.
Her words started a warm glow in my chest but I still let them slide. It would have been great to hear her elaborate on how I was different than her fiancé, especially because somehow I got the feeling I might come out in a better light than that bulky man of hers.
But this wasn’t the time or the place. If we were to find out that Giuseppe was—as I suspected—Mr. Wrong for Lucilla…then maybe…
But not yet.
I clapped my hands and said, “That’s perfect. I’ll tell them at the station that I need to check on some prototypes and I’ll be absent for a few days. You could take the train to Crotone and I could pick you up at the station. This way nobody would suspect that we travel together. What do you say?”
Lucilla smiled. “Good idea. I’ll book us rooms in the same hotel where Giuseppe stayed so that we’re right where we need to be.” She held her hand out to me. “Thanks for helping me.”
I took her palm and squeezed it. “It’s my pleasure. I brought this mess on you, I need to help you see it through.”
Lucilla shook her head. “No, Giuseppe bought this on us. I just hope that he did nothing else except write that email.” Her hand tensed up in my palm. “But we’ll see, right? No point in speculating about it.”
“No. But whatever it is that we find, I’ll be there to help you through it, okay?”
Lucilla’s glance filled with a raw emotion that awoke the manliest feelings in my body.
She bit her lip, then dropped her gaze to her chest.
I lifted our intertwined fingers to my mouth and blew a soft peck on her knuckles.
Her eyes darted to mine. “Why do you need to be….mhmm, this nice to me? It’s…confusing…it’s too much…I…”
I could feel the sheer inner turmoil in her voice and I couldn’t bear to be the one causing it.
I released her hand. “Don’t worry, Lucilla. You’ll be safe with me. I would never disrespect you by doing something that you don’t want.”
She stared at me, wide eyed, then said, “Thank you, Mario.”
She turned and began to fiddle with her bag. I thought I heard her murmur something that sounded like, “the problem…I want,” but before I could ask her, a shrill voice interrupted.
“So, you two!”
Tania had sneaked up on us without us realizing. “After almost forty minutes I trust that you’ve chosen what to eat, right?”