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“Lucilla! Why are you still here? Shouldn’t you be at Silvia’s house?”
Aunt Renata’s shrill voice made me jump. I thought I had found a quiet spot to hide in our backyard, but apparently I was wrong.
“I’m in no mood for picking the best colors for the tabletops and ribbons. I’m sure my cousins will do a fine job of that without me.” I kept my eyes on the ground to avoid her scrutinizing gaze.
She clapped her hands, her face pulling into an incredulous grimace. “But it’s for your engagement party. How can you be so uninterested?”
I’d expected her answer, but the accusing edge of her voice still stung. I knew she was right. Any normal Southern Italian girl would be in seventh heaven performing the task she proposed.
Because the two most glorifying moments in a woman’s life are when she walks to the altar and when she announces that she's getting married.
This phrase had been repeated to me so many times that it had become some kind of mantra. Only the more I heard it, the less I believed in it.
Was it because Giuseppe had changed so much in the past year?
Yes, that had to be the reason. I could still recall the sketches of the wedding dress I used to scribble in my high school books. If my pulse didn’t pick up at the idea of finally tying the knot with my long-time boyfriend, it had to be caused by his transformation.
Aunt Renata’s hands seized my shoulders and she pulled me up from the bench. “Allora, mia cara. Come with me to the kitchen. I’m sure your aunt Amalia is going to be just as outraged as I am by your behavior.”
I decided my best bet was not to protest. Perhaps Aunt Amalia would come to my aid. She was much more reasonable than my father’s elder sister. Maybe because she herself had never married. And, strangely enough, nobody held that against her. Probably due to her succulent lasagnas that could make one forget even one’s own name.
As we entered the large kitchen of our villa, my stomach tightened.
At the table to the left, Amalia was having a coffee with my father and two of his associates. Darn it. Why wasn’t Papa in his office like always?
Without even opening my mouth, I knew I’d lost my battle.
My father looked up and his hazel eyes sought mine. “What am I hearing, Lucilla? You aren’t willing to help your cousins? I thought I made myself clear that the details of the engagement need to be overseen by you.” His face softened. “After all, it’s your big day, my principessa.”
My big day or yours? I managed to bite back my snappy comment in time.
I shouldn’t be so cynical. It was rather a positive thing that my father happened to like my soon-to-be fiancé, wasn’t it?
Even if my father’s sympathy for Giuseppe didn’t arise from the affectionate attention that my boyfriend gave me.
No, he was just looking for a worthy successor and in Giuseppe he had probably found it. Giuseppe would be more than happy to take over the city from Papa one day.
In truth, nothing seemed to interest him more lately.
Not even me.
I swallowed the bile rising in my throat and plastered on a smile I didn’t feel. “You’re right, Papa. I’m sorry. I’ll go and join the girls. But do you mind if I go check on Trudy first?”
Papa didn’t have to know that I’d already done that this morning. I threw a side-glance at Aunt Renata. Two can play this game. If my aunt had the nerve to invite my father to make me feel guilty, then I could very well use a white lie to gain one or two hours of freedom.
My father snapped his fingers. “Of course, Luci. Go check on your dog. I hope he’ll recover soon and Dr. Roberto will let you take him home.”
I rushed to my dad and planted a quick kiss on his cheek. “Thanks, I’ll hurry then. I don’t want Silvia and the others to wait for me.”
I felt Renata’s suspicious glare in my back but I didn’t turn.
I headed to the corridor, rushing through the living room. Before stepping outside, I grabbed my yellow bag. Luckily I always had my swimming stuff packed.
Two hours on the deserted beach would be a suitable compensation for enduring my cousins’ swoons and odd giggling about Giuseppe.
I greeted my father’s two bodyguards at the door. I even gave a small tap on Angelo’s shoulder before I sprinted to my Vespa.
I threw my bag under my seat, and as the engine roared to life, I exhaled. My lungs expanded and my shoulders relaxed.
The road to La Meraviglia beach wasn’t long. I tried to keep the exuberance that was brewing in my heart at bay. It was a very bad sign that I felt more excited about a brief escapade to the sea than about preparing the event where Giuseppe and I were going to be celebrated as an official couple.
As I passed the eight-kilometer road sign, I steered to the left.
The large fig tree came into view. My eyes darted to its trunk. Our names were still carved into it. Luci & Peppe forever. Giuseppe had done that when we graduated from high-school, before he went to Palermo to study.
And came back a different man.
I withdrew my gaze and slowed my bike. There was no sense in going any farther. I’d gotten stuck in the sand enough times in the past to know that the quickest way to reach the pebbles leading to the lagoon was to walk from here.
I parked and shouldered my bag. I didn’t even bother to chain my Vespa to the tree. Nobody would try to steal it anyways. Not only was Cironella one of the safest villages in Calabria—thanks to my father’s efforts—but nobody in his right mind would steal the motorbike of the boss’s daughter.
I strolled along the bumpy road, jumping back and forth to avoid the steep pits. I knew Papa wanted to invest in proper pavement at some point. It would attract more tourists, he said. But first, they needed to resolve the urgent matter of the fires.
My eyes wandered to the hills to my right. Our region was blessed with such breathtaking scenery, but nothing would be left if the village didn’t find a better system to extinguish the constant fires.
I squinted and studied the large black spot in the middle of the greenery. A real thorn in the eye. And it had happened just two days ago.
That’s why Giuseppe is so distracted, you ungrateful girl.
Aunt Renata’s tough words flashed into my mind and my throat prickled. Giuseppe’s company was indeed picking up the pieces left by our inefficient fire department. If it wasn’t for my boyfriend and his pals, the wildfire would’ve reached the olive plantations too.
I stopped and rubbed my neck.
Our marriage would probably grant Giuseppe the necessary support to privatize the entire region’s fire-fighting. Being the son-in-law of Vittorio Belvedere would have this perk.
Was Giuseppe only after this? Or was his insistence on setting a date for us proof that he still loved me?
And should I, Lucilla Belvedere, accept my fate without second thoughts, if the former turned out to be true?
I bit my lip. I need to stop this. I came here to have a break from it all, not to engage in the same thoughts that I obsessed about at home.
I quickened my pace, and soon the secluded beach of La Meraviglia came into view.
I walked to the stony wall that hugged the lagoon and protected it from the wind. I put my bag into the sand and slouched beside. I sat there for a long minute, staring into the sapphire waves.
This beach truly deserved its name. The Wonder. I had visited quite a lot of places when my mother was still alive, but I had never encountered another spot where land and sea melted with each other so gracefully.
As I observed the rhythmical dance of the water, a weird movement caught my eye.
Is there somebody in the water?
I kneeled up and narrowed my eyes, bringing my hand around my front to shade my face from the sun. Yes, it was definitely someone. A man.
He was swimming toward the shore with powerful laps. His moves were so synchronized that he almost blended in perfectly with the flow of the sea. If it wasn’t for the white foam his arms raised, I would have never noticed him.
Who's this man?
La Cirella was a small town, and I could count on my hands the number of people I had ever met on this secluded beach.
Whenever tourist groups travelled to my village, my father was the first to be informed. All hotels sent their guest lists over to him. And to my best knowledge, this week no such visitors were announced.
The man reached the shallow part and stood up. He smoothed back his wet hair with both palms and began to walk out of the water.
I squeezed my teeth to prevent my jaw from dropping. Mamma mia, how did this guy end up here?
The man’s wide shoulders and chiseled abs glistened, but his straight nose and stubborn chin were the ones that caught my attention. They reminded me of the great Roman warriors.
Hmm, I wouldn’t want to have an argument with him. He seemed like someone who would fight for his justice till the end.
The man hadn’t seen me yet because the sun was behind my back. But soon, when he reached the line of the rock’s shadow, he would realize he wasn’t alone.
Quick, I shouldn’t be caught gawking at him.
I tore my bag open and grabbed the notebook I always carried with me. My pen flew away as I pulled it out with a hasty movement.
Oh, jeez, now where did it land?
I turned on all fours, brushing my hand over the sand but there was no trace of it. Just as I wanted to give up and sit back to pretend I’d been reading something, a deep baritone stopped me in my tracks.
“Does this belong to you, by any chance?”
I inhaled and arranged my face into a serene expression. Only after that did I dare to glance up. After all, I was at home here, not him. I couldn’t act out of element just because a handsome, half-naked man happened to turn up on my secret beach.
As my gaze met the man’s green eyes, all my efforts dissolved in thin air and I couldn't suppress a startled "Oh".
He had tiny hazel speckles in them and a fine web of golden lines that made his irises look like an elaborate Indian mandala. But it was the combination of his arched dark brows and penetrating glance that threw me off balance.
Maybe also the fact that he had seen me crawling in the sand like a lost puppy.
I peeked at the hand he stretched toward me. “Yes…uhm thanks. It’s my pen.” I stood up and brushed the sand from my legs before taking the pen from him.
“No problem.” He nodded and wet drops rained on my skin. “Oh, I’m so sorry,”—he pointed at my shoulder—“I didn’t mean to…”
I cleared my throat because my tongue felt uncomfortable against my palate. “Don’t worry. I’m here to get wet anyways.”
Get wet? Wet? Couldn’t I have said something less embarrassing? I quickly corrected myself. “I mean, I’m here to take a dip, too.”
He gave out a bemused snort. “I figured.” He peered down at my open bag where a towel and a pair of goggles were peeking out. “So, are you from the town nearby? Cirella?”
“Yes, I am,” I said and put my hand toward him. “My name is Lucilla Belvedere.”
A small muscle ticked beneath his left eye, but it could have been my own eyelid quivering. He took my hand in the meanwhile. His cool skin felt slightly rough from the salt as he squeezed my fingers.
“Nice to meet you. I’m Mario, Mario DeAngelis.”
I studied the woman’s face in front of me.
Can I be this lucky? When I stopped to take a swim after countless hours in my boiling car, I’d only hoped for a bit of refreshment, not to win the jackpot.
I’d heard that the local boss had a daughter, but my informant failed to mention that the girl was such a stunning creature.
She shook my hand, her lips curling up. “Nice to meet you, Mario DeAngelis.”
Her palm felt tiny and extremely warm in my cold fingers. Her heat seared me as if I’d just grabbed a stone from the boiling pebbles.
I withdrew my hand and pressed it to my wet thighs, trying to free it from the unsettling sensation she unleashed in me.
Okay, it was my turn to say something. She looked like she was expecting me to give some explanation about what I was doing on this beach. “I’m just traveling through this region, and I got tired on the road.”
Her smile widened. “So, what, you just decided to ditch your car and wander off to the sea?”
“Yeah, something like that.”
Lucilla pulled her long hair back behind her nape, twisting it a few times into a bun. “Great idea. It’s truly sultry here.”
I tried to ignore the way her lips moved. There was no reason to jump to the wrong conclusion about why I suddenly felt hot despite the cool drops still covering my body.
It had to be the sun and not the sight of Lucilla’s rosy flesh.
“You came here to swim, too.” I stated the obvious, because the meeting with the daughter of the very person I was hoping to approach fazed me more than I cared to admit.
It had nothing to do with the adorable dimples that showed on her cheeks when she smiled, nor with her lustrous dark mane. It was just the realization that I would soon need to make the pitch I’d been preparing for months now.
Yes, nothing to do with Lucilla, at all.
She shrugged. “That was my original plan. To be honest, I needed a break from my life. This beach is usually deserted. The people from my village hate the long walk to the water.”
A break from her life? And here I was thinking that I could try to build some connection with her to get closer to her father. She clearly wanted to be alone, not be disturbed by me.
“I’m sorry. I won’t bother you then.”
I stepped back and was about to turn when I felt her hand tap my shoulder. Her touch produced the same effect as her handshake, only this time the small hairs on my back stood up as her warmth cascaded down my spine.
“Don’t go. I wouldn't mind some company, as long as it isn’t anyone related to me.”
“Huh, having some problems with your family?” I asked.
She bit her lip and slouched into the sand. She patted the spot beside her. “Wanna sit?”
Without thinking, I dropped down. Lucilla was clearly in need of venting, and I was just the right person to listen to her. I needed to gather as much insider scoop about this village as I could, in order to succeed in convincing the town’s most influential person—her father—about my project.
Lucilla buried her hands in the sand, then pulled them out, slowly scattering the grains onto the ground. “You know what I should be doing right now?” She gave out a bitter giggle. “Deciding, together with my cousins, whether peony pink or lavender lilac will be a better fit for the serviettes for our dinner party this weekend.”
I shifted my weight, trying to gain time before I reacted.
I wasn’t a talented interior designer, nor did I have sisters I could observe during such absurd activities. Was the choice of a piece of fabric that important? “Ah, I see. Well, I can understand that it’s an arduous and cumbersome task.”
Her eyes darted to me to check whether I was joking. Despite my best efforts, I couldn’t keep a straight face.
Her lips twitched and she giggled. “Oh, you! You almost had me. I thought you were serious. I couldn’t care less what shade those frigging tabletops will be.”
My shoulders relaxed. “I feared that I might have offended you. I imagine some people must find picking these tiny details amusing, but it’s great to know that you aren’t one of them.”
Lucilla grabbed a small pebble and threw it toward the sea. “No, Mario, I’m not. The problem is that I am expected to be, given that the party is in my honor.”
“Are you celebrating your birthday?”
Lucilla’s face snapped to mine, then she looked back at the waves, her nose pulling into a wrinkle of annoyance. “Nope. It’s my engagement party.”
Her words made my jaw drop. I hurried to close it before she could notice. I shouldn’t be surprised that such a ravishing woman was spoken for. But, somehow, the flat tone of her voice when she told me the news intrigued me. “You don’t seem overly excited about your upcoming marriage, if I may say so.”
Lucilla stretched her neck, and as she did, the lose bun she’d tied her hair into opened, letting her dark tresses fall back behind her shoulders. “I’m happy. I am. It’s just that my father…”
I sucked in an eager breath. Should I wait or prompt her about the deal with her dad? Maybe she would tell me something I could use when I finally got a chance to be face-to-face with Vittorio Belvedere. No, it’s better to let her figure out whether she wants to share anything with me. I wasn’t a friend or even an acquaintance to her.
“My father is so content about my engagement that sometimes I wonder whether it’s him who should get married to my boyfriend instead of me.”
For some reason the mention of her boyfriend gave me an uneasy sensation in the pit of my stomach.
What’s this foolish reaction? Of course she would speak about her soon-to-be husband in possessive terms. I had no interest in or right to have any opinion on this matter.
My focus should be to find out why her father liked this man Lucilla would marry so much. It could give me some indication about her father’s weak points. “Maybe your father is just happy that you picked a nice man who will carry you on his palm for the rest of your life.”
“Right, like that’s a probable scenario.” She clutched her hand to her mouth. “Oh, sorry. I’ve been babbling enough about my private life. You don’t need to hear my confused emotions. I don’t even need to have them…so… yeah, let’s just forget I said anything.”
I observed her chin and delicate neckline. What could she have meant about confused emotions? “You aren’t bothering me at all. I grew up with my mother alone, and she often needed to let out steam. I’m used to listening without judging.”
She pivoted her chest to me. “You don’t have a father?”
“No, I don’t. He died when I was young.”
Her eyes grew wider. “My mother died too, when I was twelve. I’m sorry for your loss.”
I swallowed and nodded. Even if I had little memory of my father, the ache that assaulted my throat each time someone spoke about him was astonishing. Maybe because I’d witnessed my mother’s pain at his loss for so long that my body internalized her reactions.
That’s why you’re here. To keep what happened to you from happening to anyone else.
“I’m sorry for your loss, too,” I answered. “So you know how it is to grow up without a parent. It’s tough but in some way makes you stronger.”
Lucilla shook her head. “I’m not sure it’s true in my case. I can’t seem to be strong enough to tell my family that I’d rather just have a dinner in a pizzeria to announce my marriage with Giuseppe, instead of a large reception.”
I blamed my accelerated pulse on the fact that spending time with Lucilla was getting me closer to my goal. But a tiny voice in the back of my mind told me that it might have to do with her symmetrical features and that dainty nose of hers.
“That’s because you love them. It’s not a weakness to do things that you wouldn’t otherwise do if you do them for love,” I answered.
Why did I say this philosophical lie? I didn’t even believe it. It was probably that concerned wrinkle on Lucilla’s face that made her seem utterly vulnerable. It was messing with my brain.
My words must have struck a chord with her because she smiled. “Yes, maybe you’re right. It’s better not to see myself as a victim or a liar but as someone who wants to please her loved ones. Thank you.”
She leaned toward me and took my hand. She didn’t just pat my skin, she took hold of it and squeezed it. Her eyes glistened so marvelously in the sun, and her smile was somehow encouraging.
What came over me, I couldn’t say, but I found myself reaching forward, my face approaching hers. She didn’t move away, only gawked at me with those large aquamarine eyes of hers.
Stop. Stop before you do something stupid.
I was only an inch from her mouth when my brain finally registered the desperate call of my reasonable self.
I froze and moved back. “I’m sorry, I don’t know what…” I dropped my glance to our intertwined fingers.
She pulled her hand back and turned to her bag. She began to fidget with the zipper, while she muttered, “No worries. Nothing happened. I need to go now.”
Oh, Gosh. How stupid. If I hadn’t scared her with my crazy and inappropriate behavior, maybe we could have spoken more. Perhaps she would have invited me to her house.
“Didn’t you want to take a swim?” I asked to distract her from packing.
She turned back to me, her cheeks playing in a bright pink. “Yes, but I don’t need to anymore. I think it’s better if I leave.”
She grabbed her bag and jumped up.
I stood up too. “I didn’t want to chase you away from your break. I’m sorry I tried to—”
She put up her hand. “I said that it’s okay. Nothing happened. You did nothing.”
She chewed on her lower lip, and I couldn’t stop my glance from dipping to her mouth. A lusty feeling of warmth stole over me, and for a second, I regretted bitterly not having gone through with my foolish boldness.
Then my eyes flicked to hers. “You’re right. I wish you all the best. I do hope our paths cross again soon.” And they surely will.
I stretched my hand out to her.
She eyed it for a second but didn’t take it. “I hope not. You’ll be traveling on, so I doubt we’ll ever meet again. It’s all good. Bye, Mario.”
She turned, and without looking back, hurried toward the path leading to the road.
I watched her slender body get further and further away.
An uneasy feeling invaded my stomach. I hated to deceive people, and I hadn’t even planned on doing it with Lucilla. I would’ve told her the truth if we’d had a bit more time together. Should I have corrected her when she made the wrong assumption?
Her gaze filled with deep embarrassment flashed through my mind.
Oh, for crying out loud, what did I do? This girl was obviously suffering from cold feet before her engagement. She hadn’t protested when I approached her, but she was probably just caught by surprise. It didn’t mean she wanted to kiss me.
Also, did I really want to kiss her? Or was it only a moment of insanity?
Likely the latter.
It was imperative that I not let any distraction get in the way of my pilot project. Cirella was going to make or break my business. I wouldn’t have any other shots with Ryan O’Connor. If I didn’t deliver the results I promised, he wouldn’t back me with his money.
I went to the rock where I’d left my clothes. As I got dressed, only one thought circled in my mind, and I tried to ignore the rapid staccato it awakened in my chest.
Next time I see Lucilla Belvedere, I’m going to behave.
“No, Carmen, I’m going alone. Giuseppe can’t make it. He has an…uhm…he has an appointment in the fire department. It’s important, so he couldn’t cancel.” I heard my voice waver as I pronounced the lie to my cousin.
Would she notice it? Or would her assume-the-best-about-everyone attitude kick in and let it slide?
I didn’t even know why I bothered making excuses for my boyfriend. Maybe it was time my family notice how differently he was acting towards me since coming back from Palermo.
Then perhaps they would understand my hesitance about this marriage.
Carmen’s optimistic nature didn’t disappoint me. She sucked in a big breath, and her words flew out at the speed of light. “Oh, that’s a pity, Luci. I’m so sorry you need to do this alone. If you had called me earlier, I could have come with you. You’ll need a second opinion to decide about the flavor. You want to get it right. Remember, you’ll only marry once so—”
“So everything needs to be perfect.” I interrupted her before she could get any further into reciting our family’s female motto. “I know the drill, don’t worry. Besides, I don’t think choosing between chocolate ganache or black currant buttercream is like quantum physics.”
Really, how hard could it be to pick a good cake for an engagement? It wasn’t even for the wedding yet, for Pete’s sake.
I shifted the phone from my hand to the space between my left shoulder and my jaw, while I continued to walk toward La Golosa.
“Okay, whatever you say. But don’t forget that Zio Emilio has an allergy to pistachio and his wife is lactose intolerant.” A scratching sound echoed at Carmen’s end.
Was she looking through her notes or something? How could she be so enthusiastic and organized about my party?
As if to confirm my suspicion, Carmen continued, “You know what? Why don’t I take a pic of the list I made of the invitees’ dietary restrictions?”
“Of course, we wouldn’t want to step on anyone’s toes, would we?” I asked, not even trying to suppress the cynical edge in my question.
Sure, heaven forbid the bunch of relatives that I only saw on rare occasions dislike something in the house of Vittorio Belvedere. Aunt Renata could sink into the ground from shame and probably never surface. Which in itself wouldn’t be the worst thing on this world.
“Rather, we wouldn’t want anyone to end up in anaphylactic shock, Luci. These allergies are quite dangerous.” Carmen’s tone was slightly nasal, as if I had offended her with my careless remark and she was struggling to hide it.
I regretted my previous statement immediately. I really shouldn’t have treated Carmen so dismissively. She was just trying to help.
It wasn’t her fault that Giuseppe considered every single business appointment more important than being with me. It was his cocky smirk from this morning as he bailed on me that still bugged me, not my cousin’s eagerness to help with my engagement celebration.
“I’m sorry, Carmenita!” I hoped that the nickname I used when we were growing up would soften her heart. “I’m just a little disappointed that Peppe couldn’t make it. It would be nice to do these things together. Signora Matteotti is probably going to kill me with her condescending looks.”
Carmen sighed, and her next phrase came in her familiar upbeat style. “Oh, just ignore her. I know it cost Auntie a bit of work to get a spot for you, but it shouldn’t give anyone the right to judge you because you go in alone. It’s not like Signora Matteotti won’t get paid enough by your dad. And Auntie doesn’t need to know you were there on your own.”
My aunt’s proud smile when she gave me the piece of paper with the cake shop’s address flashed into my mind. She looked like she’d just handed over the Holy Grail or the best kept secret for ending global warming. Apparently, the owner of La Golosa put a lot of weight on how the couples presented themselves at her shop. If we didn’t make a good impression, she might not take our order for the wedding cake.
So, naturally, I couldn’t bring myself to tell her that Giuseppe wasn’t coming with me.
I stifled a groan and glanced at my flowery skirt and Mary Jane shoes. At least my effort in dressing up would compensate for Giuseppe’s absence.
I turned the corner leading to Via Repubblica where La Golosa was. “I’ll leave you now, Carmen. I’m almost at the store.”
“Okay, take some pics of the winner. Speak soon. Bye.”
The line went silent and I grabbed my purse. I opened it and was sliding my phone inside when I bumped into something.
Ouch. That hurt. Why did I keep my gaze on my hands?
My fingers flew to my forehead to evaluate the damage. No blood, only a tender spot.
Thank heavens, I really didn’t need a head injury before choosing that friggin’ cake. I had a feeling that if I missed my appointment, even if it was due to a broken skull, my aunt would never forgive me.
What could’ve hit me? It had been hard but warm, so probably not an electric pole. Good, at least I didn’t risk an electric shock…
I lifted my head to take a look and my heart almost stopped.
Hazel speckles. Dark eyebrows. That piercing gaze. How could this be?
Mario observed me for a second, his eyes wide. Then his brows creased. “Lucilla. Are you okay? I really should mind better where I set my foot.”
He reached out and brushed his thumb against my forehead.
The sizzles awaking at his touch poured over my neck, making my chest flutter.
So much for avoiding electric shocks.
I quickly stepped back, covering up the startling effect he had on me with a smile. “No biggie, don’t worry. I’m still in one piece. But you? What are you doing here?”
As in, didn’t you say you were leaving town? Why didn’t you?
The assurance that he was gone for good was the only reason I’d managed to keep my thoughts away from our weirdly intimate moment. The knowledge that it wouldn’t make sense to ponder its meaning. About what Mario wanted to say to me after that…whatever it had been?
And about why my entire body responded to a stranger’s closeness a hundred times more strongly than to that of my soon-to-be fiancé?
These were all empty speculations given that Mario’s presence was like a mirage dancing on the ocean’s surface. The wind was bound to blow it away.
Only this naughty breeze must have decided otherwise.
I watched him work his jaw as if he was embarrassed by my question. Or was it simply meeting me that made him flustered? Was he afraid I would inquire about the meaning of our almost kiss?
He rubbed his neck, and his eyes travelled to the cars passing by then back to my face. “I wasn’t quite honest with you, Lucilla, when I said I was just traveling through this region. Or, rather, I wanted to tell you the truth, but you ran off before I had a chance to speak with you.”
Quick, I had to make a carefree remark, something to make it clear that I didn’t escape from him because of the perplexing sensations in my stomach, but because I had some urgent matter to attend. “Ah, that. I was late for an appointment. With my cousins.”
The corners of his mouth lifted. “Yes, the tabletop picking. I remember. You did say it was imperative that you arrive on time.”
Heat raced to my cheeks as I realized I’d told him how little I cared about all those details. But that was before that spooky spell of attraction had attacked me. I would have never been so forthcoming with a man I didn’t know but who seemed to liquefy my bones with his mere presence.
I needed to reestablish that I wasn’t interested in him.
The challenging smile growing on his face with each second of my hesitation was proof that he’d drawn the wrong conclusions about me. So very wrong.
I cleared my throat. “Well, yes, maybe sorting matching napkins and such isn’t much up my alley. But I’m just on my way to choose the cake for my engagement.”
His lips moved into a line. “I see. Are you headed to that shop over there?” He pointed at La Golosa’s enticing window, where elaborate multi-layer cakes rubbed shoulders with a dozen various cupcakes.
I couldn’t suppress a satisfied inner pat to the shoulder for my wise self. It was a good move to draw the line immediately. He had to know I wasn’t waiting for any revelations from him about why he stuck around.
By the way, what did he want to tell me?
Despite my best judgement, a sudden curiosity washed over me, so I didn’t have control over my mouth. Because if I did, I surely wouldn’t have said the following words. “You were about to confess something to me when I decided to leave the beach.”
Yes, ‘decided to leave’ sounded way more dignified than ‘dashed off with my tail between my legs because of the hammering you unleashed in my ribcage.’
Mario cocked his head to the side. “I don’t want to hold you up when your boyfriend is waiting for you to choose your engagement cake together. I might tell you another time.”
“Giuseppe couldn’t make it.”
What was I trying to accomplish? Take a step back, just to jump a mile forward? Mario didn’t need to know that my boyfriend wasn’t joining me.
His expression animated with a strange gleam. “Do you want some company then?”
“No, no. That’s okay. I’ll be fine on my own.”
Mario flashed a smile that made the speckles sparkle in his irises. “I happen to have a major sweet tooth. People would probably like what I pick. You can trust my judgement. ”
Yes, but not myself alone with you.
I was just about to refuse him once more, when he said, “If I tag along, we’ll have time to discuss what I wanted on the beach. You seemed curious about it a moment ago. Also, I feel awful about unintentionally lying to you.”
The polite excuses stuck in my throat.
He seemed sincerely sorry about having misled me. And the truth was, I itched to know why he was still in Cirella. It would be better to prepare myself if his stay in our little town wasn’t going to be short term.
Also it might be handy to step into La Golosa, and face the scrutinizing eyes of Signora Matteotti with a handsome man.
A crazy idea formed in my head, and the thrill it gave me made it impossible to suffocate it. My lips were moving before I could think twice about what I was bringing upon myself. “You know what? Fine. You can come and eat some free cakes. But—” I raised a finger as I saw his cheeks lift upward. “I need a favor in return.”
He shifted his weight and nodded. “Just say it.”
“The shopkeeper, Signora Matteotti, is apparently very fond of seeing couples at her tasting sessions. She’s never met Giuseppe…so…”
I trailed off, hoping that he would fill in the blanks without me having to spell it out.
He stared at me, then his jaw twitched. “Oh. Oo-oh. Yes, sure, no problem. I’m all yours.”
Mhmm, the way ‘yours’ rolled of his tongue sent delicious shivers through my spine.
Stop it. I’m only going to pretend to be with Mario for a few hours. No reason to get all wound up about how it would feel if he were truly mine.
I already had Giuseppe, and the next day, we were announcing to half of our town that we were going to get married.
Mario waved toward the shop. “Shall we get inside then? I skipped breakfast, so I’d love to get some delicious cake.”
He winked at me and my pulse shot up to the sky.
Oh, boy. Maybe it had been a foolish idea.
No, it would be fine. Mario would just sit beside me, and we could chat while we ate cake. “Okay, let’s go. Don’t forget I’ll have to call you Giuseppe. You follow my lead.”
He nodded. “Of course, my love.”
The last part was probably added as a joke, but it was hard to ignore the effect it had on me. My breathing hitched, and I couldn’t help but recall Mario’s warm breath on my cheeks on the beach.
No, focus, Lucilla.
We weren’t here to kiss but to taste sweets. It’s not like Signora Matteotti would expect us to make out in front of her to prove we were couple, right?
I squeezed the fork between my thumb and index finger to distract myself from how delicious Lucilla looked when she enjoyed something. Because she was clearly having a blast tasting the sumptuous cakes the old woman was serving.
Her nose moved into a funny little wrinkle as she moaned and rolled her eyes. “Mhmm, this one is so tasty, too. I’m not sure which one to pick.”
The owner sniffed as if the pure assumption, that it would be easy to choose the best amongst her creations, offended her deeply. “Lucilla, my dear, I think you should let your fiancé have the final world. We women need to bend to our men’s wishes. Isn’t that right, Giuseppe?” She flashed a bright smile at me.
Despite her clear eye contact, it took me a second to realize that she was addressing me.
Right, I was Giuseppe now. The man who would marry Lucilla soon.
My eyes flicked to my fake-fiancée’s face, which was contorted into a grimace of annoyance. From her heavy breathing, I could easily deduce how unacceptable she found the shopkeeper’s cheeky comment.
To be honest, so did I.
I squared my back and grinned at Signora Matteotti. “I think you have a point. Would you mind giving us some privacy so that I, the man of the situation, can make the most adequate decision for us?”
I kept my voice as polite as possible, but it was hard not to chuckle as I got into to the role of confirming my male power. These words felt so out of character for me that I was sure the old lady wouldn’t be fooled.
To my greatest surprise, she bobbed her head approvingly. “Of course, Giuseppe. I’ve heard you’re a man who can control things with an iron fist. I’ll go back to the kitchen now. Call me if you need anything.”
She retreated behind a purple curtain, leaving us alone.
I turned to Lucilla and caught her biting on her lower lip.
As our gazes crossed, she burst into giggles. “Man of the situation? What the heck was that?”
Heat prickled my scalp. Did I overstep my role of fake-boyfriend-food-taster? “I’m sorry. I just wanted to say something that would convince the lady to disappear. I didn’t mean to make your boyfriend seem like a chauvinist jerk.”
Lucilla’s giggles stopped and she pursed her lips. “Well, Giuseppe isn’t like that, of course. Otherwise I wouldn’t marry him.”
But somehow her words lacked conviction, as though my previous bravado wasn’t such a bad impression of what her boyfriend might’ve said.
I didn’t want to press her further on this topic. I had no business digging into her choice of life partner.
My glance moved back to the plate in front of me.
The only thing that I should be concerned with was the choice of cake. After that, my role in Lucilla’s personal life would end.
I pointed at the stracciatella cream with the fluffy sponge cake. “I think this is the one I like the most. What about you?”
Lucilla’s eyes flicked to my finger and she smiled. “You don’t say? It’s exactly the one that I loved the most.”
The jubilation in her voice made my heart beat faster. I was happy that I made her happy, even if only through agreeing on a cake’s flavor. Which, considering that we’d only known each other for less than two days, was pretty disturbing.
Lucilla pushed the plate away and pivoted her chest to me. As she did, her magnetic warmth forced my body to mirror her movement. So soon we were sitting face-to-face with each other, only a few inches apart.
I must have startled her with my immediate response, because her lashes batted slightly quicker than before. She leaned back and drew in a breath. “Now that the cake is decided, would you tell me why you were ambling on Via Repubblica instead of traveling somewhere else?”
I swallowed. If I told her now, the news was going to spread quickly. Did I do all the preparations for the project to be launch-ready? “I’ve never intended to travel on. I actually came to stay in Cirella.”
Her brows arched. “To stay as in to live here?”
Why did her voice ring so alarmed? Could it be that she was also feeling this undeniable chemistry between us, and she feared that I could mess with her marriage plans?
The idea that this might be the case warmed my chest. I quickly slapped myself inwardly for even thinking it. My mission here wasn’t to stop Lucilla’s engagement.
“To live here, yes. As long as it’s necessary. I have a pilot project I would love to roll out in this town.”
The confusion on her face was so palpable that I didn’t even wait for her to ask anything, but continued, “I intend to put an end to the wildfires that are devastating this region.”
Lucilla’s mouth popped open as if my revelation was very different from what she had expected. She quickly closed her mouth and scratched her chin. “The wildfires? Are you a firefighter or what?”
“Ex. I’m an ex-firefighter and also an IT engineer.”
She gave me a slow once-over and her lips curled up. “Wow, you don’t look like an engineer type.”
I quickly peeked down at my prominent biceps and shook my head. “Not all IT people are lanky with glasses.”
She clutched her hand to her mouth. “Oh, sorry. I didn’t mean to offend you. Sure, looks shouldn’t give us prejudices about a person’s job.” She pointed at her face. “Would you guess that I teach in a kindergarten?”
As I took in her dimples and her amiable chestnut eyes, I could totally picture her playing lovingly with kiddos, making them crack up with funny games. I shrugged. “It’s not that hard to think that you would be good with kids.”
A confused expression settled on her face, but then she grinned. “I take it as a compliment.”
“You should, I intended it as such.”
She flashed me a smile that made my blood thicken. Or at least I felt my shoulders and arms become heavy.
I should pay attention when I was around this girl. Her closeness had the weirdest effect on me. And I didn’t need distractions. I only had a few weeks to implement everything and get the local fire department on board with my plan.
Even if I could spare some time for flirting with anyone, Lucilla was spoken for. We were at a darned shop to pick her engagement cake.
“So you have a pilot project for the wildfires.” Lucilla’s comment brought me back to the present. “Want to tell me a bit about it?”
I briefly described the new generation of drones I’d developed that could monitor and act, by need, as the first line reaction to a starting fire.
She listened to me, her chin on her left hand, her hair covering her arm like a dark curtain. “This is an awesome idea. But how did you have the money to build these prototypes? Such technology isn’t cheap and you’ll need quite a lot of them to actually monitor a wide territory.”
I recalled my van packed with the drones. “Well, I currently have seventy-five operational drones. But more can be produced quickly once the pilot project demonstrates its utility. My sponsor, a philanthropic billionaire, runs incubator projects like this all the time. If I can show him that my idea works, he’ll back me with a substantial amount.”
Lucilla clapped her hands. “You know whom you should talk to about this?”
Please say your dad. Please.
I lifted my eyebrows.
“To my boyfriend.”
Her boyfriend? Why would I need to share this with the man she was going to marry? The only reason I’d want to meet that guy was to understand Lucilla a little bit better.
And also to assess my competition. No, no. I shouldn’t even think that. “I thought you were going to suggest your father. I heard he controls everything around here.”
Lucilla narrowed her eyes. “Huh, you haven’t been here long, but you’re already catching up on the gossip?”
I had to tell her the truth. I didn’t want her to find it out later and consider me a creeper. “No, I actually knew that your father is a boss in Cirella. Before I chose this town, I studied its most influential people.”
“What? So bumping into you on the beach—”
“No. No.” I hurried to correct her. “That was total coincidence. I never meant to involve you in this.” I put a hand on her knee for emphasis. “Believe me.”
She flinched under my touch and her pupils dilated. She pulled her leg slightly to the left, and I lifted immediately my hand.
“I believe you,” she nodded. “I’m glad, because I hate to be used by someone I like.”
Somehow her statement had a bitter undertone, as if she was speaking from experience. But I didn’t stop to wonder about what could have happened to her, because her last three words made me lose focus.
Someone I like.
Did she like me? Did she think I was nice or something more?
No, you fool. She was just making a general speech. It wasn’t any confession about how she thinks about you.
“I wouldn’t use you, ever. I promise,” I said.
I immediately took a vow that I would never do that. At least not again.
On the beach, I might have thought that spending time with Lucilla would give me a strategic advantage, but when I offered my company to her today, this aspect didn’t even cross my mind.
She smiled. “Good. In that case, I would be happy to help you. Exactly because you don’t ask for it. I’ll arrange a meeting for you with my dad, if you want. But I still think speaking to Giuseppe might bring you further. He and his friends are taking over our town’s fire department slowly but steadily.”
Who would have thought. I never imagined I had anything in common with the man, whom I’d secretly—without any plausible reason—started to dislike.
“Oh, so they’re firefighters too?”
Lucilla shook her head. “No, not all of them. Giuseppe isn’t. He studied business in Palermo and made some great connections there. When he came home and saw the increasing need for more reliable firefighting, he organized a group of civilians to build his own squad. They made some proper training courses, and their results beat that of our regular firemen. They’re always first on the scenes, and it’s thanks to them that most fires can be contained quickly.”
There was a proud glint in Lucilla’s eyes. She obviously thought her boyfriend was doing a great job.
To me, the idea that a group of civilians would overtake the task of keeping a town safe was somehow puzzling. How was it possible that the fire department would be slower to get to the areas of danger than a bunch of self-invented heroes?
Maybe I was missing something.
In any case, if what Lucilla said was true, I would need to convince both sides and loop them into my project. My drones would make the lives of all of them much easier.
“That’s quite an achievement. I’d love to meet your fiancé then.”
Lucilla blushed at my words. The pink hue on her cheeks made her adorable.
This Giuseppe was one lucky guy. I just hoped he knew it.
“If you want, you can come to my engagement party tomorrow. It would be an occasion to meet both my father and Giuseppe.”
To her engagement party?
The image of some bulky man hugging Lucilla to himself while he announced how happy they were to tie the knot soon filled my mind and my stomach churned.
Why was I reacting like this? It would be a golden occasion. At a party, people are usually relaxed and more inclined to listen to others. And if Vittorio Belvedere was as pleased with her daughter’s engagement as Lucilla had said, then he’d be in a great mood.
“Are you sure I wouldn’t disturb? After all, I’m not family.”
Lucilla waved dismissively. “Ah, that doesn’t count. I didn’t invite anyone to this celebration yet, and it’s also supposed to be for me. So you’ll be my guest. Besides,” she gave me a conspiratorially smile, “you’ve chosen the cake with me. It’s only fair that you get to taste it for real.”
She reached for the stracciatella cream and put a small spoonful into her mouth. “Oh, yes. We made a great choice.” She licked her lips.
My heart jumped to my throat, and the urge to bend forward and taste the sweet cream, and her likely even sweeter lips, assaulted me.
Luckily, Signora Matteotti saved me from making another colossal mistake. She popped her head inside and asked, “So, my dear couple, did you decide?”
As Lucilla explained which one we’d picked, I tried to calm my breathing.
Lucilla mustn’t notice how she kept making me go haywire. Especially if I was going to visit her in her home and meet her fiancé.
Lucilla is not why you are in Cirella. Just remember it and all will be good.
After probably the fiftieth kiss on my cheek and the hundredth pat on my shoulder, I was done with my engagement party. I didn’t know half the people my aunts had invited and those relatives whose faces did ring a bell weren’t my favorites.
The music was definitely chosen by Renata, because I didn’t hear one song that wasn’t a tarantella or pizzica—her two favorite folklore dances. As I watched the group of women hop happily to the slightly off-key voice of the singer, a cold shiver ran through my spine.
Was I making a mistake by letting my family decide about my future?
Sure, it wasn’t Pa who forced me together with Giuseppe when we were still in high-school, but as the years passed, he seemed to be the glue that held us together. Him, and his business ties with my boyfriend.
I pressed my hands on both sides of my neck to calm the beating in my carotid artery. It made me feel almost nauseous, given that each swallow seemed an arduous task.
A pair of grey eyes flashed into my mind.
I shook my head to chase the image away. But I didn’t try to expel it with all my force, so it stuck like the bit of wax that had dripped from a candle onto my nightstand. I’d tried to remove the spot, but scratching it away damaged the furniture’s wooden surface, so I left it. Somehow I felt that if I insisted too much on forgetting Mario, maybe an important part of me would disappear too.
One that was finally hopeful and excited about the future. What was it about this man that made me feel so strangely? I didn’t really know him, but I felt at ease with him.
Okay, maybe at ease was a slight exaggeration. But I wanted to spend time with him. That’s why I’d set him up to choose the cake with me.
My glance wandered to Giuseppe who was chatting with one of his associates. His manly stature and high cheekbones, together with the beard that highlighted his masculine features, made him one of the most desirable bachelors in our town. And he was marrying me. So what was my problem?
Was I seriously considering the option of canceling our engagement, just because I happened to meet a puzzling stranger that had awoken feelings in me I wasn’t sure I could even explain?
Giuseppe caught me staring at him and flashed a cocky smile at me.
I couldn’t exchange it with a similarly enthusiastic expression so I just nodded quickly and began to back out toward the balcony.
Some fresh air would do me good. I needed to get a grip on my swirling thoughts. Especially since Mario would eventually show up and expect me to introduce him to Giuseppe. I couldn’t act like a confused nitwit when it happened.
I had almost reached the giant glass doors, when Giuseppe stepped over to me. “Where do you think you’re going, Luci? I need you by my side when the battalion chief arrives.”
“Is he coming too? To our engagement?”
I had never personally met Lorenzo, the man whose reputation my fiancé was slowly dismantling, but I seriously doubted that he would be interested in speaking to any members of the Belvedere family—myself included.
I couldn’t blame him. From his perspective, Giuseppe was interfering with something that he shouldn’t. Firefighting wasn’t a business that got handled by civilians in any other region.
But then again, no other areas had had as many wildfires as ours in the past few months.
Giuseppe looked at me as if I had gone mental. “Of course. I went by the station the other day to invite him. We need to keep up appearances as long as my company has only an auxiliary role.”
A bitter taste filled my mouth.
Why was it that even on the day when we were supposed to be the center of attention as a couple, Giuseppe managed to turn everything around and make it be about him and his career?
Giuseppe must have interpreted my pursed lips and frowning brows as if I were preoccupied with the insufficient speed with which his company was taking hold, because he added. “Don’t worry, Luci. Once we are officially married the doors I’ve been banging at are going to be wide open for me. As Vittorio’s son-in-law they won’t refuse my initiative. They won’t dare.” A fire invaded his eyes and it made him look more handsome.
But, somehow, watching his confident expression, my stomach knotted harder. I wasn’t quick enough to suppress a cynical, “well that’s a relief.” Giuseppe grabbed my elbow and pushed me toward the balcony.
“You know what?” He looked around and raised his voice so anyone nearby could hear. “It isn’t such a bad idea to catch some fresh air after all.” He turned back to me and leaned to my ear. “We need to speak, Luci. You’ve been acting strange.”
My nostrils flared at his annoyed glance.
Was he seriously going to blame this on me? I wasn’t the one who’d turned into Mr. Hyde ever since he returned from Palermo.
To demonstrate my indignation at his words, I tried to wiggle my arm free, but Giuseppe kept me with a firm grip. “At least wait till we get outside before you make a scene,” he whispered.
From the corner of my eye I caught Carmen’s worried face, and I stopped protesting. I plastered on a smile I didn’t feel and let myself be dragged outside.
We walked down the large stairs toward the fountain my father had built for my mother’s forty-fifth birthday. It was a small imitation of Trevi Fountain. He used to tell my mother that, even if she couldn’t return to Rome, she would always have a piece of her city in this garden.
The buzzing sound of the cascading water acted as a natural relaxant on my nerves. I felt my neck muscles ease up and my breathing became deeper. I didn’t realize that the chatter and music inside the room had been disturbing me that much.
Giuseppe released my arm and stood facing me. “So what is it, Luci? You’ve been acting weird in the…”
I was already filling up my lungs to break into a loud sigh when I heard his last words.
“…past three days. You seem somewhere else in your head.”
The words I wanted to say stuck in my throat.
Giuseppe wasn’t just blindly turning my hostility around. He’d actually noticed something in my behavior. And I knew he was right.
I did feel absentminded and caught up ever since…
The blazing pair of grey eyes filled my mind once again and my breath hitched.
It had been a colossal mistake to invite Mario over. He hadn’t shown up yet, but he was definitely going to.
Giuseppe hooked a finger underneath my chin and forced me to look at him. “What’s the matter, Luci? Don’t you want to get married anymore? Don’t you love me?”
“Of course I do,” I answered without even thinking about it.
Giuseppe had been part of my life for so many years now that it was ridiculous to envisage that I wouldn’t love him. We had shared so many memories together. He knew me and I knew him…or at least had at some point. Was it the case still?
And also was I still in love with him? Now that was a question I should probably reflect on when I got some alone time.
I gazed into his olive-green irises and he squinted. “Luci….are you upset because I didn’t go to that frigging cake tasting? Is that what this whole thing is about?”
He was offering me a cheap way out, and I didn’t know why, but I took it. “Yes, I would have loved if you came.”
It would have been much wiser to just confront him about how much he had changed. To ask him whether he, too, felt that what we were doing was sort of a continuation of what everybody expected of us or what we expected of ourselves.
But it might not be what we truly wanted.
I, however, opted to be unwise. Perhaps I was afraid he’d say that he did want to be my husband. No, it was better to leave everything at the status quo for now.
The deep baritone behind me made me jump. I knew to whom the voice belonged without having to turn. Even if I had some doubts, the narrowing eyes of my fiancé confirmed my suspicion.
So much for the status quo.
I drew in a big breath, paying attention no to do it too loudly. I turned to greet him. “Hi, Mario. Nice to meet you again.”
I didn’t stretch my hand, because I didn’t want to come across overly familiar with him in front of Giuseppe.
Mario withdraw his hand, his chin settling in a confused look. But he had the tact of not inquiring about my cool manners. Instead, he smiled at Giuseppe and said, “It’s great to meet you, Giuseppe. I’m Mario. Mario DeAngelis. Lucilla had told me about your work with the voluntary firefighters. It’s impressive what you got up and running.”
Giuseppe squared his shoulders, shifting his legs in a slightly larger spread. His brows rounded and his eyes flicked to mine. “You two know each other? How come?”
My first instinct was to retort about him being impolite by not even exchanging Mario’s greeting, but I opted for a simple, “We met the other day in town. Mario is here to implement a project that might interest you. I invited him to our engagement party so you two would have an occasion to meet.”
I could feel Mario’s gaze boring into my cheeks.
What was he thinking about my lie? Did he jump to the wrong conclusion that I was in a dishonest relationship with Giuseppe?
Wrong conclusion. Really? I ignored the cheeky voice in my head and smiled at Mario. “Isn’t that right, Mario?”
Mario’s glance bounced between my face and Giuseppe’s, then he gave a short nod. “Yes, correct. I have a project about fire prevention that could really turn things around in Cirella.”
Giuseppe’s inquiring glance left my face and moved to Mario’s. “So, Mario…” His arms stretched to the side and enclosed me into a tight embrace. He shoved me close to his chest while he continued, “My fiancée thinks you have some interesting stuff to share with me. Let’s hear it.”
“Now?” Mario’s jaw dropped, but his eyes filled with an excited glint.
It warmed my chest to see him so happy about being asked about his project. He was so driven and dedicated to it that it was hard not to be transported by his enthusiasm.
The same nervy voice in my head began to laugh. Wait a minute…why are you cheering about Mario’s dedication while the same zeal in Giuseppe irritates you? Was it because Mario’s intention to prevent the fires seemed entirely selfless while my fiancé enjoyed bathing in his reputation as the town’s savior more than actually saving lives?
I peeked up at Giuseppe. “Don’t you want to maybe go to Dad’s study? He would also be interested in hearing everything.”
Giuseppe exhaled loudly. “Luci, Luci. How many times did I tell you, it’s better if you don’t mix into the organization of the business. You”—he smiled, but it was more a condescending smirk than a genuine smile—“are a great kindergarten teacher. But you don’t know much about what’s interesting in my line of work, do you now?”
Mario stirred. “I found Lucilla very knowledgeable about the impact and the problems associated with the wildfires. It is often the common people who deliver the greatest insights into how to solve a problem. So I think—”
Giuseppe snapped his head toward him. “I’m sorry, Mario. But nobody asked what you think. Not yet, at least.”
Mario worked his jaw, but he didn’t respond.
My stomach tightened. I was used to Giuseppe being harsh to me when I tried to inquire or air my opinion about his work. My father said it was a sign that he cared too much about his job and that I shouldn’t take it personally. But hearing him act hostile with Mario? It bugged me very much.
Was it because Giuseppe suspected the weird chemistry between Mario and me? Or was he simply being protective of his firefighting business?
After a few seconds of silence, in which only the squishing sound of Giuseppe’s palm sweeping away unnecessary grains from his jacket was to be heard, I cleared her throat. “Okay, so you don’t want Dad to listen to Mario’s idea then?”
Giuseppe sniffed. “I don’t think it’s necessary. I’ll act as the first filter. But, Luci,” he touched the tip of my nose, “could you be a darling and go get some drinks for us? I’ll stay here with Mario and listen to his plan while you’re inside.”
My eyes darted to Mario. When our glances crossed a light wobbliness made its way through my limbs. I quickly lowered my gaze.
Was it safe to leave these two alone? Maybe safer than staying while my bones felt like butter and my throat was parched from the intensity of Mario’s presence.
I would do him and myself a favor if I followed Giuseppe’s instructions. So I nodded and said, “Okay. See you in a bit.”
I stared at Lucilla’s back. My stomach felt hard as a rock and my fists were itching to swipe the arrogant smile from her fiancé’s face. What right did he have to speak to Lucilla like that? How could she choose to marry a man who was acting so brazen with her?
I inhaled slowly, trying to get control of my whirling emotions. I had come here with the clear determination not to judge Giuseppe through whatever weird sensations Lucilla was unleashing in me. This man could be a major player in my project’s success, so I couldn’t allow myself to be jealous of him. Or to be mad.
Giuseppe straightened his back and rubbed his beard. “So, now that we are alone, I’m sorry, but I must tell you I’m not really keen on any new initiatives in the sector of firefighting for the moment. We already have lots of technical innovations ongoing. For now, we need to consolidate our position with the local authorities and the fire department.”
He pronounced the words politely, but there was a slight gloating undertone to his smooth baritone, as if he didn’t feel sorry at all for refusing my proposal before even hearing me out.
“But,” I put up my hands, “that’s exactly what my pilot project would enable you to do. Find a cutting edge advantage over anyone else. The drones I work with help you localize and monitor areas at increased risks of wildfire. They can signal and even extinguish any starting problem, so it can’t spread to larger areas.”
Giuseppe’s brows shot up. “Drones, huh? With cameras and all?”
I suffocated a snort. Of course, with cameras. With what else? But instead, I smiled. “Yes, all my models are equipped with a wide-angle camera that can wirelessly transmit to me in real time what is happening in the area.”
Giuseppe’s face paled. “Did you start to collect any footage already?”
What was his problem? If I didn’t know any better, I would have thought he looked frightened by the idea that I might’ve started to implement my work already. Could it be that he realized the potential of my innovation and was scared he and his team would be put out of their job?
“No, not yet. I only arrived in town a few days ago. I wanted to contact Mr. Belvedere first, and then present myself at the fire station. I know nothing in Cirella can bloom without the benediction of Lucilla’s father and—”
Giuseppe whacked me on the chest. “Wait, so that’s why you befriended my fiancée? You hope to get to her father like that?”
His tone of voice was so aggressive it took me more by surprise than his actual physical gesture.
I took one step back. I could totally take him. I was half a head taller and probably better trained. Giuseppe was well built and might be leading missions against wildfires, but he wasn’t a real fireman. He seemed more familiar with the indoor equipment of a gym. I, on the other hand, had served several years in the field and had never abandoned my passion for outdoor workouts, even after I picked up my computer studies.
He might have realized the direction of my thoughts, because he withdrew his hand and rolled it into a fist. “Is there a problem? You didn’t answer my question.”
The blood throbbed in my temples. I didn’t want to make a scene in Lucilla’s house though. It wasn’t her fault that her fiancé was a real jerk. I wondered how he could actually be so dedicated to saving lives. He looked like a person who only cared for his own share of good fortune.
“No, that’s not the reason. Lucilla and I barely know each other. It’s wrong of you to insinuate otherwise.”
A smirk made his lips curl up. “I wasn’t insinuating anything about Lucilla. Only about your intentions.”
I steeled my gaze. “Does this mean you’re not interested in even learning how the entire system of drones works?”
“No, I am not. I’m sure that my father-in-law—”
“Soon-to-be father-in-law, hehehe…” It was an elderly man who interrupted us. His arm was flung around Lucilla’s shoulders and she was carrying two waters.
She handed one to me and one to Giuseppe. “Your drinks.”
“Thank you.” I beamed at her, and she gave me a shy smile in response.
The man, who had to be Lucilla’s father, tapped Giuseppe on the shoulder. “And you, Peppe? No thanks to your future wife?”
Giuseppe exhaled with a loud swish and murmured, “Thanks, Luci.”
The man clapped his hands. “Now tell me, what were you two talking about? Luci hinted at a very interesting drone project.”
His eyes moved to mine and his brows arched. I flicked my gaze to Lucilla who gave me a short nod as if she wanted to indicate I should speak openly to her father.
Did she suspect how her fiancé was going to react based on his initial mood? Did she want to salvage the situation for me? My chest filled with a fuzzy warmth at the thought that she might have gone behind Giuseppe’s back to grant me the much-needed exposure to her father.
I cleared my throat and briefly described my setup to Vittorio Belvedere.
When I finished, the man was furrowing his silver eyebrows. “This sounds very intriguing. Why did you choose Cirella for your destination? You could have picked any other localities.”
I threw a side-glance at Lucilla, then blinked back at her father. If she was going to connect the dots from what I had told her about my family then so be it. “My father was a fireman in a neighboring town. He was called to Cirella as a replacement for a night shift. It was the last time anyone saw him alive. He perished in a fire that started around the higher part of the village.”
“La notte del dragone?” Vittorio grabbed at his chest.
“Yes, I believe they called it that. The dragon’s night. The last mafia cleanse reported in this area. My father ended up in the wrong place at the wrong time. He wanted to prevent the fire from spreading to the nearby gardens and countryside.”
“So is it a sort of tribute to your father?” Lucilla asked, her eyes large and filled with the same serious expression I saw when she spoke about her mother’s loss.
“In a way, yes. But not only. I noticed that this area has five times as many fires as any other town in Calabria. Also, the fires follow a strange pattern. I’m curious to explore them further.”
Giuseppe growled. “Nonsense. What patterns? It’s just where a careless person drops a lighted cigarette or a piece of glass. There’s nothing behind them. You’re wasting your time and ours through this foolish hypothesis.” He turned to Lucilla’s father. “Vittorio, you can’t really think that—”
But Vittorio waved with his hand. “Oh but I do, Giuseppe. Don’t be so closed-minded.”
Lucilla let out a quiet giggle, obviously enjoying how his father scolded her fiancé. I didn’t dare to join in, though I also thought that Giuseppe’s confused frown was rather funny.
Giuseppe’s jaw hung loose. “Does this mean you want to endorse this man’s project?”
My heart jumped to my throat, and my eyes darted to Vittorio’s face. Would he agree, or would he turn around and back his son-in-law…well soon-to-be son-in-law?
Vittorio glanced down at his daughter. “Lucilla seems to think this is important for us to explore further. And I agree with her. I think Lorenzo would need to hear of it too, and then we could plan how to deploy a trial in our area.”
Was he speaking about Lorenzo Sermon, the battalion chief? If so, then I had managed, in just one day, to nail all three of the contacts I needed for a go. My sponsor would be satisfied with my progress. Ryan was a nice guy, but he was also a savvy businessman. He would expect me to deliver on the confidence he had put in me.
“You want to present him to Lorenzo? But it would reaffirm Lorenzo’s authority over me if he decided to oversee Mario’s project.” The hurt in Giuseppe’s voice was unmistakable. It didn’t fit his I-am-such-a-cool-in-control persona.
Vittorio smiled. “Oh, son. Don’t be like that. Soon, you and my daughter are going to be married. The Belvedere name will be enough sustenance against anyone trying to come into your way. Now let’s go inside together and look for Lorenzo. You can propose a meeting with him where you’ll take Mario. This way it all stays in your hands.” He patted Giuseppe’s shoulder then winked at me. “It will be a win-win for all, I reckon.”
Then he turned toward the stairs and together with Giuseppe who seemed slightly soothed by Vittorio’s last words, they climbed the stairs and disappeared behind the large glass doors.
I gaped at the spot where they had stood, my head spinning. My plan had worked, and I was in discussion with the town’s finest to implement my project. Why wasn’t I feeling elation? Why didn’t my cells buzz with anticipatory joy?
My glance met Lucilla’s eyes and a cold hand gripped my stomach. I knew why. Vittorio’s reminder that his daughter would soon marry a man who didn’t seem to deserve her.
Who are you kidding? You would dislike anyone who was about to get Lucilla as a partner for life.
I kicked myself for this troubling realization. Where was I letting my emotions go? I couldn’t be fascinated with a girl who was, not only taken, but whose relative and connections played a vital piece in my future and project’s success.
Lucilla stirred. “Well, at least Papa seems interested. I guess Giuseppe’s enthusiasm is still limited, but I’m sure he will come around.”
“Thank you so much for your help,” I said and grabbed her hand. I just wanted to infuse her with the great feeling of security she gave me. Only I didn’t know how.
Her smooth skin tickled mine with delicious thrills.
She let our fingers linger intertwined for a couple of seconds then withdrew her hand. Her gaze dropped to the ground. “Right, so we should go inside too. It’s going to be cake time soon.”
“Our cake?” The words slipped my mouth before I realized how inappropriate they actually sounded.
Lucilla lifted her chin and our irises connected. “Yes, the one we picked. But please keep it a secret, okay?”
“Sure, will do.”
Her face relaxed somewhat, then she said. “Let’s go now.”
We walked toward the entrance side by side. What could I do to lessen the feel of this woman’s magnetic pull? Maybe from now on I should only deal with her fiancé and avoid meeting Lucilla. Perhaps through Giuseppe’s filter I could get a grip on my unrealistic idea of getting to know Lucilla Belvedere better.
“Luci, love. I’ll pick you up for dinner at eight. After the meeting today at the station, I have so much paperwork to catch up on that I won’t be done before that.”
Giuseppe’s voice sounded truly sorry, which surprised me.
Ever since our engagement party he seemed more attentive towards me. A lot more like the old Giuseppe I used to know. Maybe even like the one I fell in love with.
Could this be an effect of him meeting Mario?
At the memory of Mario, my fingers trembled slightly on the phone so I squeezed it tighter. Using a cell phone for personal calls in the kindergarten classroom was prohibited, but my colleague Lara always covered for me. She had met Giuseppe and knew that he didn’t like when I ignored his calls. However, I didn’t want to draw attention to myself by dropping my phone on the head of one of the kiddos.
“It’s fine, Peppe. I’ll be ready then. Sorry, but now I really have to go,” I whispered into the phone.
“Fine, Luci. Go and play with those little ballbreakers. I see you tonight.”
“They aren’t ball—”
My protest was cut short by the beep of an empty line.
I rolled my eyes and stuck the phone into my pocket.
Why was it that Giuseppe would always take two steps forward and one giant jump back?
My heart was just starting to warm to him again, especially after the delightful afternoon when he managed to keep his business out of discussion for a full hour.
My eyes darted to my little group of protégés who were busy drawing about the best moment of their weekend.
Sure, Clarissa was fighting with Adam about the green pen. And Luca had gotten both of his cheeks painted with a black color that would take me hours to scrub off before his mother came in and gave me an earful about how her son looked.
To me, however, kids were still the most adorable creatures on this world. I loved each of them very much and I could only imagine how much deeper my affection would be if I had my own family.
Some day. Not too soon. But I did want one.
Did Giuseppe? Was his comment a sign that he wasn’t father material?
“Why are you frowning like that?”
Lara stepped over to me and rubbed my shoulder.
I waved. “Nothing really. Just futile thoughts about the future. We need to live to see it, right?”
Lara furrowed her bushy brows.
She was the only female I knew to whom the dark and thick lines lent more charm. If I left my brows unplucked, I’d look like a Neanderthal. But not Lara. She pulled off this natural style to perfection.
“I’m usually all for staying in the moment. But I’ve seen you too many times this past week with that odd am-I-flushing-my-life-down-the-toilet expression on your lips. I don’t like it. Even the kids can feel that you’re off,” Lara said.
As if to confirm her point, Roberto, one of the chubbiest and cutest of our group, jumped up and bolted to me. He was waving a piece of paper in his hand. “I drew this for you, Luci. So that you’re not sad.”
I took the drawing from Roberto and bent to plant a kiss on top of his head.
He ran back to his friends and started a new masterpiece.
I blinked at Lara who was observing me with her signature didn’t-I-tell-you glance.
“Still sticking to your previous lie?”
I put a hand on my chest. “I didn’t lie. I just don’t want to unload my crazy on you all the time.”
Lara snorted. “But that’s what friends are for, right?”
She was probably right. Also, I was literally exploding from the desire to speak about my confused feelings with someone. Normally Carmen would have been my first choice, but my favorite cousin was knee-deep in planning my marriage. I couldn’t just come out and tell her I was having second thoughts.
“Giuseppe just said something on the phone that made me uneasy. He referred to the little ones as ballbreakers.”
Lara chuckled. “Seriously? Well, it’s a vividly good description for them most of the time.” When she noticed my somber expression, she stopped laughing. “Are you wondering whether he would be a great dad after saying something like that?”
I shrugged without saying a word.
Now that Lara put it into words, my worries sounded like an excuse to justify my guilty thoughts about Mario.
If Giuseppe didn’t like kids then he might not be the man for me. Was my brain truly jumping to these conclusions?
Lara grabbed my shoulders and turned me toward her. “Listen, Luci. Giuseppe is a young man. And young men rarely have a gift with kids. But he will mature into his role of a father. I’m sure of it.”
“Luci, Lara, look! A visitor!”
The excited squeals of the children made us both whip around to the door.
My heart almost flipped backward when I saw who had come to see us.
How did Mario always choose to appear in moments where I was in a fragile state of mind?
His deep baritone sent shivers to my spine.
Lara’s eyes bounced between his face and mine, which must have been getting redder by the second, judging from the heat wave sweeping over me. I could have been in the Kalahari Desert for all I knew.
“And who are you, handsome stranger?” Lara prompted Mario in her usual witty banter.
Mario stepped inside and walked up to Lara, holding out his hand. “I’m Mario, Mario DeAngelis. I’m sorry to bother you during work. I just need a second with Lucilla, if that’s okay.”
My throat was aching from the dryness, but my swallowing reflex wasn’t working. Just like the rest of my body. I just stood there still under the shock of meeting this man who’d occupied a good half of my thoughts for the past two days.
Was it pathetic that only the other half had been about my fiancé?
Lara threw me an assessing glance then smiled at Mario. “No problem. If you can convince our kiddos to let their favorite teacher go outside, even for a second, Luci can be yours. Normally we have to fight our way to even go to the restroom. These little devils stick to us like glue. Don’t you?” She winked at Clarissa who was hugging her knee.
Mario didn’t hesitate. He kneeled down and waved his arms. “Kids, come here. I have a secret to tell you. One that only you can hear.”
The children sprinted over, a few even throwing themselves into his arms.
My lips twitched into a smile.
A secret, huh? I wondered how Mario had learned to speak the tiny ones’ language. He immediately how to find their magic button.
“What’s he saying to them?” Lara asked quietly. Then she lowered her voice another notch and added, “And who is this hunky demigod? He has muscles as chiseled as a Raffaello sculpture. Don’t tell me he’s the one who has been contributing to your frown lately?”
“Pssst,” I hissed to her.
I didn’t want Mario to hear us gossiping about him.
Lara nodded but wiggled her brows, which basically meant I’d get a temporary free pass, but I’d have had to spill the beans as soon as Mario was gone.
Mario straightened and glanced at us. “I think the children are okay with Lucilla stepping out for a minute. Aren’t you?”
The kids were all staring at him, their eyes glistening.
“Yes,” they called in a chorus.
Oh, my. What did he do to my loud kindergarten children? They rarely behaved this disciplined.
But I didn’t have time to wonder because Mario came over and put a hand on my arm. “Shall we?”
It cost me serious energy not to wiggle my bare flesh away from his grip. Not that it felt bad to have him touch me. The contrary. But I knew it was wrong. Whatever this man was unleashing in me had to be in the undesirable category for someone in my position.
But then why was I so…ah, whatever. It didn’t even make sense to search for the word.
I would just need to listen to what he had to say and then get back to Lara and the kids fast.
We walked to the farthest corner of the empty corridor where our chatter wouldn’t disturb any of the other classes.
“You have a lovely