Authors: De Ross, Melinda
A Melinda De Ross Book
Mirage Beyond Flames
Copyright © November 2013, Author Melinda De Ross
CoverDesign: Classy Designs:https://www.facebook.com/classydesignsbycoly
FirstCopyright e-Publication: November 2013
ALL RIGHTS RESERVED:This literary work may not be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, including electronic or photographic reproduction, in whole or in part, without express written permission. All characters and events in this book are fictitious. Any resemblance to actual persons living or dead is strictly coincidental.
Melinda De Ross
Mirage Beyond Flames
Coriola – Book One
To my dreams. Don’t ever leave me. Don’t ever disappoint me.
Part One – Revelation of Love
First, he was intrigued by her sunglasses. The big dark lenses completely hid her eyes and that caught his attention at once.
Outside, the London sun was scorching; waves of heat distorted the images of buildings and streets. A few pedestrians moved like through dense syrup, wilting under the weight of a truly torrid day. Even traffic appeared as in a slow-motion picture - a fluid volatile mirage.
However, inside the cool room colorful shutters attenuated and tamed the light, creating a diffuse glow. That, along with the air conditioning’s hum, created an almost domestic ambience.
Gerardremained a silent spectator, studying from the doorway the woman who dominated the tableau. She was dressed in white, seemingly personifying an angel of mercy, whose messenger she’d actually been in the past three years, since the opening of HOPE – a center of research and treatment for children’s cancer.
Hersuit, consisting of pants and a sleeveless blouse, was wrinkled, thanks to the little ones who had gathered around her, holding toys and sweets, ever-present gifts from her visits. One of the children had managed to climb onto her lap. Gerard was surprised to notice she held and caressed him with maternal affection, not displaying the impersonal air of some celebrity who considered charity just another promotion gig.
Her hair waslong, almost reaching her waist, a blend of light brown and blond, similar to the color of his own short cut hair. It was gathered in a ponytail, falling carelessly on her shoulder. This look emphasized her somewhat aristocratic face, with elegant, well-defined cheekbones and sensual lips. She wore a pair of tiny diamond earrings.
Maybe the shadesare meant to make her appear mysterious or fend off unwanted interlocutors, he thought cynically.
He knew her name wasLinda Coriola and she was an artist, a sculptress or something like that. Periodically, she made large donations to the clinic where he spent precious time researching experimental treatments against cancer.
She must have felt his stare, forshe turned her head toward him, remaining still for a heartbeat. He was aware of the figure he cut as he stood indolently propped in the doorway, with his tall, perfectly proportioned frame, his shoulders almost blocking the entry. He usually dressed simply in jeans and a dark shirt; today was no exception.
Hewas often told his best feature were his eyes – bluish-green, highlighted by tanned and most often unshaven skin. A more poetic ex-girlfriend had once declaimed she could see an entire ocean in their depths, though he wasn’t inclined to notice anything exceptional in his appearance.
However, he was very observant. Analyzing her face, he could almost read her reaction to his presence. He’d swear she was seized by the same strange symphony of emotions mirroring his, that same inexplicably powerful attraction. Judging by her expression, he sensed it was somewhat in contrast to the distant cautiousness people said she’d adopted since the unpleasant experience of her divorce, about a year before.
Guessing her dilemma, he moved pleasantly forward, sending a warm smile to the children, who let out exclamations of joy seeing him. They formed an untidy circle around the two. He stretched out a hand in greeting.
“Bonjour!” he saidin his deep, slightly abrasive voice, spiced with a subtle French accent. “I am Gerard Leon.”
She lookedfor a moment at his stretched hand, then returned the gesture.
“Linda Coriola. It’s nice meeting you, Mr. Leon.”
“Gerard,”he corrected with half a smile. “We’ve never met before, but I’ve heard about you.”
She raised an eyebrow.
“I’m a biologist, I work here,”he went on.
Heavy footsteps sounded onthe corridor and a plump nurse appeared in the doorway.
“Hello, Mr. Leon, Ms. Coriola! I’m here to take the children to lunch. Come on, sweethearts, wash your hands, food is waiting for you!” she addressed the group of children, who were already heading noisily to the door, saying goodbye to the adults.
After the children had left, Gerardre-focused his attention on Linda, trying to find a conversation topic. Before he could open his mouth, he noticed the tip of her nose was red. From behind the dark lenses, a tear was sadly sliding down her smooth cheek.
He crouched in front of herand, lifting her chin until their eyes were at the same level, asked worriedly:
“What’s wrong? Don’t you feel well? Doyou want me to call somebody, bring you a glass of water or something else?”
Sheshook her head in denial, trying to turn her face away, but he was gently cupping her jaw between strong fingers, watching her interrogatively.
“No,”she finally said, “I’m fine, it’s just that…”
She twisted again and againa ring on her finger, as though trying to find a proper way to express herself without opening her heart too much in front of a stranger.
“Everytime I come here I get enormously sad, seeing their pale faces, the effects of chemotherapy and other horrible treatments, their eyes… Some still have hope, but others know or believe themselves to be doomed. I can see it in their shadowed eyes. It upsets me terribly I can’t help them more, I can’t give them what truly matters, meaning health and a normal life.”
While saying this, Linda took a tissue out of her bag. Before she could protest, he took it from her hand. Slowly taking off her sunglasses, he wiped her tears himself with gentle, almost tender movements. He was vaguely wondering what had urged him to make such a bold gesture.
When sheopened her eyes, they looked at each other for the first time without any physical barrier between them.Bluewas a much too banal description for her almond shaped eyes, which, although framed by red-rimmed eyelids and wet eyelashes, without any cosmetics applied, were stunning.
He had never felt such absurd disconcertedness as whenhe found himself kneeling in front of the most attractive woman he’d ever met, having no clue about what to say or do next. After a few moments, he said:
“These poor children’s fate is terrible, but don’t think for a moment you’re not helping them. On the contrary, your donations contribute enormously to expenses for research, treatments, medication, to ensure a pleasant environment for them.”
Without realizing, he took her hand in his.
“You and I both fight in our own way for the same cause. It makes a difference, you know. For them it’s vital there are still people who care. Most of the others prefer hiding behind an insensitive wall of ignorance.”
Linda smiled,seemingly warmed by what he was saying and by his palms cupping hers.
“I know you’re right, Mr. Leon,but in cases like this it’s never enough. Anyway, what you’re doing for them is much more important. I gathered you’re experimenting a new vaccine or serum, which has already given promising results. A single saved life means more than all the money I could offer.”
“Without the money you offer there wouldn’t be research laboratories, equipment, resources,nothing,” he replied, getting to his feet. “And please stop addressing me asMisterLeon, I feel like a decrepit old man,” he went on smiling. “I don’t think I’mthatmuch older than you. I know it’s not polite to ask a lady how old she is, so I’ll tell you I’m thirty-six, you calculate the difference and if you’d like, you can share it with me.”
She laughed softly,appearing amazed by the spontaneity of this sound she rarely heard between these walls. And hopefully because the stranger in front of her had managed to amuse, perhaps even comfort her after only a few word exchanges.
“I’m not yet at the age women get sensitive regarding this subject,” she finally answered. “I’m twenty-eight.”
“Hmm,so the age difference is ideal,” he replied watching her meditatively.
“Ideal for what?”
“To drink a coffee together.”
Hestretched out a hand to help her rise. Detecting a shadow of hesitation, he added:
“I want to tell you about the project I’m working on. I think it would be in your best interest to know what happens to the money you work so hard for. Don’t you agree?”
Clearly recognizing the bait for what it was, but probably unable to resist the famous French charm and her own curiosity, Linda got up, straightening her clothes.
“If you replace the coffee with ice cream, your offer gets even more tempting. Where do you suppose we could go in this heat?”
Opening the door for her, he touched her elbow slightly, saying:
“There’s a cafeteria close from here, I go there from time to time with some of my little patients. The good news is we don’t have to walk in the sun, the whole street is shadowed by trees and buildings. You’ll like it.”
As soon as they left the clinic’s cool oasis, the afternoon air became almost unbreathable, hot and dry – a rarely encountered phenomena in London. Gerard indicated the way to the cafeteria which, fortunately, was indeed nearby. He went on holding her arm, barely touching it.
The street was deserted, except for a few pedestrians walking drowsily, hurrying toward cool refuges. When they reached the cafeteria, its gliding doors opened and a wave of chilly air enveloped them at the entry. An appetizing smell of sweets, pastries and other delicacies spiced the air.
The cafeteria was quite large, done in pastels, having wooden floors and walls covered in beige wallpaper. From the ceiling swayed old-fashioned chandeliers, which perfectly completed the ambient, conferring it a slightly archaic air, along with the sculptured wooden tables and chairs. The only modern-looking sector was the refrigerated display cases area, revealing shelves filled with culinary masterpieces: cakes, cookies, ice cream, pastries, plus a variety of sodas and fruit juice, more or less natural.
After a meticulous inspection, Linda chose vanilla ice cream and two éclairs. Gerard followed her example, a gesture she found oddly gallant.
They sat at a far-corner table, next to a huge ficus tree, whose shiny leafs stood proof that living in semi-shadow and sweet smell highly benefited the plant.
Gerard pulled a chair for her before he sat at the round table.
“Hmm!” she exclaimed when the first spoon of flavored ice cream deliciously melted on her tongue. ”I haven’t eaten ice cream this good since childhood. Those disguised chemicals they sell in our days can’t compare with this!”
Gerard’s eyes rested on her in a way that hinted he was savoring both the ice cream and her company.
“I gather you haven’t been in a cafeteria in a long time, am I right?” he asked, approaching the éclairs.
“I haven’t, in a very long time. Unfortunately, lately I’ve been working too hard and forgot to enjoy the small pleasures of life.”
“Would I seem indiscreet if I asked why?”
Shelooked at him a bit surprised, then answered amused:
“Are you always so straight-forward?”
“Yes, although some people call menosy. Is it because of your divorce? I heard something at the clinic. If you don’t wanna talk about it, you can just tell me to mind my own business. I hear that all the time, but it doesn’t stop me from asking questions.”
“You hear a bit too much for your own good, Mr. Leon!” she teased. “Since you are so well informed, tell me, what did you hear about my divorce?”
“Not much. It only took meeting you to realize the guy is an idiot and it’s probably in your best interest you’re rid of him.”
Recognizing a compliment but avoiding its trap, she replied:
“There’s no interesting story. I’m simply one of the millions of women who got married to a man with whom I had nothing in common. Seven months later we saidgoodbyein agreement, no scandal involved. This is all. Disappointed?”
“You’re kidding, right?”
His green, exotic eyes boldly met hers with unsettling directness, causing her pulse to accelerate slightly. Gerard signaled the waitress and they ordered some tonic water.
After the first sip, Linda restarted the discussion:
“Now that you know the story of my life, tell me about yourself. You’re French, right?”
“Is it so obvious?”he joked, stirring the ice in his glass.
“Bien sûr.This is pretty much the limit of my French,” she said laughing.
“Inany case, you have a great pronunciation,” he remarked.
“Merci beaucoup! So, since you lured me with ice cream to tell me about your project, why don’t we start with a short biography? You can tell me to mind my own business if you don’t want to talk about it,” she imitated him, smiling.
He laughed, looking surprised to discover what a delightful person was hiding behind that distant shield.
“Okay, here’s the synopsis of my life: I was born in Bobigny, a small town located North-East of Paris, where I lived until I was sixteen. That’s when my father died.”
He paused,as though waiting for the usual pitying remarks, but she remained quiet. Gerard resumed:
“He was working in nuclear research,a field about which I don’t know much, since I was too busy being a teenager. Anyway, at some point, he began having serious health problems and when he finally went to the hospital, he was diagnosed with a brain tumor. It was inoperable, being too advanced, because he had ignored the symptoms until the last moment. Two months later, he was dead.”
Although he tried to appear detached,his voice still reflected the regret and sadness accumulated in twenty years.
“After that, mymother decided to move here, with her sister, Sophie. She was destroyed, physically, mentally, and I, in my ignorance, wasn’t a big help.”
“Did the way your father died determine you to become a doctor?” she asked in a gentle voice, which inspired understanding and confidence.
Gerard lifted his gaze to her,looking somewhat astonished by her perception capacity. Then he took a sip from the tonic water and answered thoughtfully:
“Could be… Maybe in my subconscious this weighed a lot in my career choice, but thereare other factors. I inherited from my father a thirst for knowledge, fascination toward science in general, and the human body, in particular.”
She couldread in his attitude the passion and profound devotement for his work. This kind of passion motivated her too at the same extent, even if the direction was different.
Gerard went on:
“I’m intrigued by the mechanisms, by the configuration of live organisms and their chemistry, their way to function, to adapt, to reproduce…”
Flustered, shelowered her eyes to the glass in front of her, toying with the colored straw, but she could feel the weight of his gaze on her. If she had looked at him then, she would have seen his almost imperceptive smile.
“Well, mostly that’s the boring story of my life. Is there anything else you want to know?”
“Yes,” she replied, her eyes sparkling with interest. ”Tell me about the magical treatment you’ve discovered.”
Hereclined in his chair.
“Actually, I can’t truly say I discovered it. There has been some research done in this direction. I managed to determine a treatment formula which, so far, is giving excellent results in vitro testing.”
“I gatherthat at HOPE they don’t do tests on animals, it’s one of the reasons I chose it to offer financial support. I consider tests on animals monstrous in this era when technology has evolved enough to exclude them,” she said.
“I feel the same. As a doctorand as a human I respect life in any form. Even though it’s not appropriate for a physician to say this, there are people who deserve to live less than animals and suffer much more. There’s not a crueler animal in nature than the human.”
Linda smiled, a wave of heat envelopingher soul.
“I can’t believe there’s someone who actually loves and respects animals as much as I do. I agree with you, I couldn’t have said it better. Why didn’t you become a veterinarian?”
“I intended to, but I thought I could do better saving children’s lives. For now, no matter their genetic baggage, they all deserve a chance to live and maybe this will make them better people. The ones who survive, that is,” he added, a hint of sorrow in his voice.
They remained silent for a moment, each absorbed in their own thoughts. She was the first to reopen the conversation:
“How did you test your miraculous treatment?” she asked, back to the main topic. “And what kind of treatment is it?”
Gerard linked his hands under his jaw.
“A serum and an ointment based on snake venom. It’s mainly intended to cure some skin cancer forms.”
She raised her eyebrows in amazement.
“Is that so? I thought any kind of venom is harmful, not beneficial for the human body.”
He smiled slightly.
“That’s what most people think. I’m a nonconformist. I want to prove that any organic substance has its uses, it’s just hard to determine the proper way it needs to be used. The Mojave rattlesnake venom has some special features, discovered by researchers who try to produce anti-venom vaccines. It contains a very powerful neurotoxin and other substances which, to put it simple, transform the affected cells into a sort of… soup. True, the destruction is nonselective and the objective is destroying the cancerous cells. But, as an alternative to the traumatizing and invasive effects of surgery and chemo, it’s preferable to inject a well-calculated quantity of venom serum into a tumor. In the first phase we obviously try the ointment. Unfortunately, it’s impossible to annihilate only the cancerous cells without affecting at least some of the healthy ones. We’ve made numerous tests in vitro and using other methods and meticulous calculations, we determined a treatment formula, still rudimentary. Of course,” he admitted, “it can’t be applied in all cancer forms, but for external tumors, in light forms, we already obtained encouraging results on two volunteers.”
“Thatis spectacular!” she exclaimed animated. “I suppose there are a lot of parents who give their consent for their children to serve as guinea pigs.”
“Yeah,” he answered. “After all, their fate is pretty much sealed from the moment they’re diagnosed, so they haven’t got much to lose by trying new treatment methods. Nevertheless, our calculations are very exact and the risks are minimal for volunteers.”
Linda sighed, supporting her chin on her hands.
“But what exactly provokes cancer?” she asked. “A virus, a bacteria, what?”
Gerard looked at her,seeming surprised by the acute interest she manifested regarding this subject.
“To be painfully honest, not even medical science can’t exactly point out the cause of this disease. Following all kinds of studies, there have been issued numerous hypotheses. The most plausible would be that, under the influence of certain factors, the growing and multiplication systems ofnormal cells change. This becomes dangerous for the rest of healthy cells. In other words, the cancerous cells multiply in a chaotic way, uncontrollably, their number increases until they form a visible tumor. Beside their very fast multiplication, cancerous cells are incapable of adequately organizing, and the newly formed mass of tissue doesn’t have normal tissue features.”
“I knowtumors are malignant and benign, the malignant are nasty, so doctors have to get rid of them, right?”
“Something like that. Would you like to be my assistant? I could really use having you around.”
“I’m sorry, but I’m more in my element amidst pieces of wood, metal and sharp objects. Biology was never myforteand, most important, I don’t have the required psychological structure to work in health care. I get teary-eyed just by seeing sick people,” she said with forced cheerfulness. “Or did you forget the earlier demonstration?”
He covered her hand with his, gently stroking her.
“Don’t be embarrassed, it’s not shameful to have a soul. You have to be glad society didn’t turn you too into an insensitive robot, like the ones surrounding us.”
Shedidn’t withdraw her hand, but fully enjoyed the pleasant feeling enveloping her at his warm touch.
“Don’t get me wrong,” she said.“I’m not ashamed for having weaknesses, not really. I just wish I could hide it better, so I won’t be easily read by just anybody, like an open book.”
A corner of his sensualmouth lifted.
“Believe me, you’re far from being an open book. When I first saw you, I got the impression you’re a cool, distant dame who does charity just for publicity’s sake.”
When Linda looked at him with her jaw dropped, he ran a hand through hisshort hair.
“Damn it, I can’t believe I’ve said that!” he went on laughing, and shejoined him.
“For such a smart man, you’re not so clever, Mr. Leon. Or didn’t you know I have always preferred to remain anonymous? What is known about me, is discussed only inside the clinic, at least I thought so. But considering how informed everybody is about my personal life, I wonder how come they don’t speculate about the color of my underwear,” she joked without malice.
Gerard widened his smile.
“If you’d like, I’m perfectly available to check, just so there won’t be any uncertainties.”
You have no idea how tempting it is, she thought, but asked with a dry smile:
“Are you so friendly and helpful with all women?”
“Only with the incredible ones, like you,” he answered, watching her in such a way she wondered if she was running a fever.
Realizing their plates and glasses were long empty, Linda grabbed her purse and stood.
“I’d better be going,” she said. “I’ve got some work to do.”
“I’ll see you to your car, just hold on a minute whileI pay our bill.”
Outside, the asphalt was still very hot, but the sunlight had dropped considerably.
They walked in silence the few dozens of yards until they reached the clinic, where Linda had parked her car - a sport, light blue Mercedes, its top carelessly left down.
“You should be more careful. Don’t ever leave your hood down, especially when you park on the street.”
“Oh,” she gesticulated vaguely. “There’s nothing to steal really, just some chisels somewhere in the glove box, but I have a few dozens more at home, of all kinds.”
Gerard took her hands in his once again.
“It was a real pleasure meeting you,” he said, looking her straight in the eyes. “When will I see you again?”
Linda hesitated, then answered on a neutral tone:
“I’m sure I’ll see you around, here at the clinic. Now that I live in London, I’ll pass by more often. Thanks for the treat and good luck with your treatment, I’ll check on your progress.”
Gerard smiled, unaffected by her apparent indifference.
“I’ll see you around,” he said and kissed her cheek, before she had time to make any gesture of protest.
* * *
After her car was out of sight, he entered the building, going straight to the room where he’d met her earlier. From the floor, next to the chair where Linda had sat, he picked up the sunglasses he’d removed himself not long ago. With a little satisfied laugh, he headed toward Carolina’s office. She was one of the nurses and occasionally also served as a secretary.
Displaying his most seductive smile, he approached the plump, blond woman, who resembled a bit his own mother.
“Caro, Ms. Coriola forgot her sunglasses here. Do you by chance know her address and phone number? Yeah, yeah, I know they’re confidential, don’t worry. This data is safe with me.”
Although she owned the house for a few months, Linda’s excitement toward the rust-colored brick building hadn’t decreased in the least. The house had one storey, three bedrooms and two baths, displaying a simple façade which didn’t differ in any way from the buildings forming a select neighborhood somewhere in South London. Afferent to the main building was a small, white garage and in front of these stretched a driveway, guarded by old trees. The access to it was through a massive gate, old looking and elegant, like the entire ambient, but having a modern alarm system and centralized opening.
Linda pressed a button of the remote ever presenton her car’s dashboard and the ornate gates slid with unexpected grace.
Bypushing another button, the garage door lifted. She parked her car, then got out and unlocked a side-way door which connected the garage with the house. The door led straight to a huge living room, with enormous windows, revealing the panorama that had enchanted her so much: a pool with sinuous, asymmetric forms meandered behind the house. Alongside it, numerous garden dwarves, elves and other fairytale characters held, in ceramic hands, dozens of lanterns. When night fell, the combined lights gave the scenery a charming appearance, seemingly detached from the same fairytales as their bearers. Next to the pool – a rarely used extravagance, although it had a heating system – was a narrow platform with a bunch of lounge chairs. Beyond all these stretched a wild-looking yard, its trees and shrubs sheltering a small gazebo – Linda’s workshop.
She sprawled on theliving room couch in front of a massive TV screen – one of the few furniture items. Browsing through channels in search of something interesting, she called her companion. He immediately appeared from the kitchen, tail welcomingly raised in the air, and jumped on her lap, purring noisily.
“How’s my beautiful, sweet baby-cat?” she asked, lovingly stroking the soft white fur, immaculate except for some black spots on the front paws - which looked like cat shoes. A patch of dark fur spread around his left eye. This dark patch, nearly circular, conferred the cat a prankish look and had brought him the name Pirata.
In the three years since he had beenborn, Pirata and his mistress had been inseparable. He was her most faithful friend and wise confidant.
The cat let out a melodious meow, to which she promptly replied:
“Yes, darling, I was at the clinic today. If it was possible, I would’ve taken you along, I’m sure you could have cheered up the children a bit.”
She kept talking, caressing the cat’s clean fur, whilst he listened carefully to her every word, watching her with his slanted blue eyes.
“I’ve met one of the doctors, a guy… Well, a great guyapparently, but you know I don’t trust men much, right? Especially the ones who seem too good to be true.”
Pirata gently rubbed his pink nose against hers, making her laugh.
“Look at me, I’m completely pathetic, my best friend is acat and the funny thing is that I get the impression you truly understand what the hell I’m saying! Let’s grab something to eat,” she said and got up, following the cat, who led the way to the kitchen.
The kitchen was furnished as simplyas the rest of the house. In the center stood a triangular counter – which also served as a table with two chairs. Cupboards and other utensils were disposed along the walls around the counter, all surfaces being immaculately white.
“Let’s see what Mrs. Adams cooked for us,” she muttered, referring to the housekeeper she’d hired, at the recommendation of the old couple who had sold her the house, after they had benefited for five years from Mrs. Adams services.
Linda inspected the fridge, discovering chicken soup, something that appeared to be mushroom omelet and pumpkin pie - her favorite dessert.
“Mm, we’regoing to eat excellent tonight.”
She put food and water for Pirata inhis zone– an area next to the kitchen door where the cat had his sleeping basket, toys and even a swinging little door, specially built for his access and cat-ish needs – then ate some omelet sitting at the counter.
When she finishedit, she took a piece of pie and installed herself in front of the TV, on the living room sofa.
While changing the channels, bored, she stumbled over one of the numerous film versions made after Paul Feval’s book,Le bossu, abook she had especially liked in childhood. The movie wasn’t half too bad, so she watched it interestedly. After it ended, she noticed darkness had fallen and her elves – or rather the photo sensors with which they were equipped –had turned on their lanterns, creating sublime games of light on the pool’s shiny surface. Seeing as it had probably been one of the hottest days in London’s history, the pool seemed more alluring than ever.
Pirata had sprawled onto her lap at some point in the middle of the movie and he was deeply asleep. Linda lowered him gently on the sofa, receiving in exchange a small protesting meow.
She climbed the stairs to her bedroom and undressed, leaving her clothes in her specific disordered style, discarded on the huge bed covered with blue sheets, same color as the walls. She put on a tiny black swimsuit, almost new. She grabbed her cell phone – from which she rarely could be separated – and turned on the radio application, finding a channel with pop, rhythmic music that perfectly suited her mood. She left the phone on a lounge chair next to the pool and slowly sank into the water, savoring the feeling of liquid coolness, as pleasant as a hot bath on a cold winter night.
Pirata, awakened by the commotion and music, had come to keep her company and was watching his lazily swimming mistress, while he was sprawled among dwarves in the grass.
After she swam enough,a pleasant fatigue spread into her muscles. She turned her face up in the water and let herself float, gazing at the dark sky, where no star seemed to ever show itself.
Smog, she thought melancholically, then started to move her arms slowly to reach the pool’s side.
Precisely when she was getting ready toclimb out, the radio stopped, as the phone started ringing.
“Who the hell is it at this hour?”she rhetorically asked the cat who was imitating her, stretching with his belly in the air and scratching with his playful claws the paint of a poor elf.
Linda rushed out of the pool, quickly dried her hands on a towel and grabbed the phone. She didn’t know the number on the display screen.
“Hello,” she answered a tad too briskly.
“Hello, Linda, it’s Gerard Leon. I’m standing in front of your gate but I don’t know how to get in and it’s kind of difficult to climb over it. Could you open it for me?”
For a few seconds, shedidn’t manage to utter a sound. Eventually she asked:
“Gerard? What the hell are you doing here at this time of night?”
“I’ll explain when you open. Or would you rather I climb over the gate?”
“No, don’t touch it!” she said aggravated. “It’s gonna start the alarm and alert the security company. Although maybe it’s not such a bad idea. Hold on, I’ll be right there.”
What the hell is he doing here at this hour?she asked herself once more, while she was hastily wrapping a towel around herself and put on a pair of beach slippers.
The drivewayleading to the gates was quite long and Linda, her hair and skin wet, began to feel the cold brought by nightfall and the pool’s chilly water. Once she reached the gate, she looked at Gerard through the thick bars, then introduced the code to disable the alarm.
“How do you know my address and what are you doing here at this hour?”
Gerardcouldn’t distinguish much in the deep darkness. Nevertheless, he spotted the towel, which revealed a pair of long legs, smooth shoulders and arms that held the fabric in a shriveling pose. In the moonlight, her skin had a pearly glow. The water drops dripping from her hair were lost somewhere behind the fist that gathered the towel to her chest.
Heclutched hard one of the gate’s bars, trying to control the incredible reactions triggered in his body and mind by this semi-nude nymph, toward whom he felt a magnetic attraction.
“You forgot your sunglassesat the clinic. I took your address from the register book and came to return them to you, along with this.”
Heoutstretched his other hand revealing, in the low light, a single white rose.
“Can I come in?” he asked. “I swear my intentions are as innocent as this rose,” he went on, joking.
She appeared hesitant,but considering she was probably half frozen, she opened the gate then stepped aside to make room for him. He knew he was watching her with an almost tangible intensity, the glow of his eyes defying the darkness, but was helpless to tear his gaze away.
He handed her the sunglasses and the flower. She took them with a shaky hand, murmuring:
“Thanks,but you shouldn’t have bothered.”
“It was no bother, on the contrary. I was hoping you’ll invite me for a coffee and you look like you could use something hot.”
As though she completely agreed, Linda indicated the house’s direction and they both headed to the building.
Gerard continued to watch her discretely from the corner of his eye. As the lights from the windows revealed a clearer image of the woman beside him, it was increasingly hard not to touch her. He felt an acute need to enfold her in his arms, to warm that suave skin with hot kisses. Did she feel the same attraction or was she as cold and distant as she seemed? He would have given anything to know what she was thinking right in that moment, but she kept walking without sketching any gesture that could reflect her mindset.
“Do you live alone?” he asked, before he remained completely deaf to the voice of reason and do something he wasn’t sure he should.
Her answeroverly surprised him. According to the sources from the clinic, Linda lived alone, the rest of her family was in Italy - her birth-land.
“With whom, then?”he asked again, seeing she didn’t plan to elaborate in regard to this subject.
They finally reached the front door, which had been left open. A white cat was waiting on the steps, obviously bothered by the presence of a nocturnal intruder.
“With him,”Linda answered, indicating the cat, who permanently seemed to wink at somebody. “His name is Pirata and he’s my best friend,” she added smiling and signaling him to come in.
In the living room, sheinvited him to sit on the sofa.
“Please, wait for mea few minutes, I’m gonna go change.”
“No problem, no rush,”he replied. “If you show me where the kitchen is, I can make some hot chocolate.”
Linda looked at him a bit surprised, then guided him to the kitchen.
“You’ll find mugs up in that cupboard, the chocolate is here, on the right,” she explained. “I usually heat water in the microwave.”
“Go and dress,”he said. “And please dry your hair, I wouldn’t want you to catch a cold.”
So saying, he took a wet strand of her hair between his fingers and with a slow, fluid motion, lifted it to his lips, deeply inhaling her subtle scent.
Linda watched him, seemingly notbeing able to escape his mesmerizing gaze, so intense he felt it could penetrate a wall. After a moment, she took a deep breath and said:
“I think you’ll be fine until I get back.”
She turned and walked out, climbing the stairs fast, clutching her towel with one hand, the sunglasses and flower with the other.
* * *
Once she reached the bedroom, she put the rose in a vase filled with water, then started to dry her hair, fully enjoying the hair-drier’s hot blast warming her skin.
Inwardly, she knew she was trying to postpone as much as possible the moment she had togo downstairs and face Gerard, sit next to him, find conversation topics. The reasons of this delay weren’t too clear though.
He’s an extremely attractive guy, fighting for the same cause as you. He’s intelligent, educated, he looks extraordinary. He can melt you with a single glance, so what’s the damned problem?she asked her conscience.
But she knew the problem very well. Her reluctance toward all the commitments a relationship involved, the fact she wasn’t disposed to give up a single ounce from her so-hard-earned freedom and independence… Above all, she privately knew if she started a relationship with this man, no matter how emotionally detached she’d try to be, it would have been impossible not to fall in love with him. And if he wouldn’t have shared her feelings, her heart would have been broken. On the other hand, if he’d feel the same, surely Gerard would want more: marriage, commitments, responsibilities – things which Linda had convinced herself she didn’t want in her life, at least not too soon.
Theyall want this, sooner or later.
She sighed deeply and began brushing her long hair, then put on a black cotton T-shirt and sweat pants. With her bare feet engulfed in fluffy pink slippers, she descended the stairs to the living room.
Gerard was waiting for her on the sofa, in front of the TV, scratching Pirata’s chin, while the cat was purring noisily and his nose twitched toward the two hot chocolate mugs on the coffee table.
Hespotted her and, with a gesture, invited her to join him.
“I see you’ve made yourself at home,” she remarked and sat, taking Pirata in her arms.
Gerard placed one of the mugs in her hand.
“You have a very comfortable house and a really cute companion,” he said, sipping the flavored liquid from his own mug. “How do you like London in summer?”
Shesampled the chocolate – which was excellent – then took off her slippers and sat cozily, with her feet under her.
“Generally it’s a tad too cloudy and wet, I was used to Italy’s sun, but I adapt quickly.”
“Then how come you moved here?”
“Here I found two art galleries very interested in my work and, as a bonus, I have the chance to get involved more in helping the clinic, more than I could manage from a distance. My mother and brother also make donations to a few clinics and hospitals in Rome. My mother gets involved more in these activities, but Giovanni, my brother, doesn’t have time, he just signs the pay checks.”
“That is very generous of you all, I understand you’re coming from a family of philanthropists. Tell me about them.”
“Well, there’s nothing much to tell. My mother, Giovanna, lives in Rome, with her new husband, Fabrizzio Angeli. He’s six years younger than her and has a considerable fortune – I made a bet with Giovanni that in two years she’s gonna bankruptcy him.”
Gerard laughed and she resumed, smiling:
“My father, Vincente, is a painter. Currently he resides in the isle of Crete, with Ariadna, a creature with a nymph’s body and a pigeon’s brain, younger than myself. I could say we’re quite a degenerated family,” she joked, “if it weren’t for Giovanni. He is the pride of this family, he’s thirty, managed to remained unmarried so far and is the founder of a company developing computer games, in Tuscany. This is most of the boring saga of the Coriola family,” she concluded.
While speaking, she twisted round and round on her finger the only ring she wore, a silver band in the form of a snake with ruby eyes, coiled on the middle finger of her right hand. Gerard took her hand in his, studying the object in question, then told her:
“Seems to me you have aquite interesting family. Although I don’t know any of the others, I’m have no doubt you’re the most fascinating of them all.”
He lifted his gaze to her face. In the intimate light coming from the TV screen and from a corner lamp, his eyes looked dark, but the intense, steady sparkle in them wasthe same that had warmed her entire being, from the moment she’d met him.
Gerard slowly took her hand to his lips, kissing her palm, and she felt her entire body beginning to vibrate with a primary, magnetic energy– the same kind of reaction which gives birth to sparks and puts into motion all massive bodies in the Universe.
He got gradually closerto her, and Linda felt his hot breath, then his sensual lips seeking hers, exploring, tasting, merging together into the most seductive and expert kiss she had ever experienced. He pulled her even closer, encircling her waist and she melted in his arms, feeling his strong, masculine body pressed to hers, knowing he was enveloped by the same intoxicating desire that was flooding her senses.
In that instant, she feltshe could risk everything, she could give up everything just for a single moment in the arms of this man, who had awakened inside her a latent passion whose intensity was unknown even to her.
Gerard lifted his head slowly, watching her with those fascinating eyes, which would haunt her dreams for a long time.
“I think I should go,” he said huskily, slightly breathless. “Unless you want me to stay…”
She gazed at him longingly, seriously contemplating this possibility, to her infinite amazement. However, after a few moments she lowered her gaze.
“I think you’d better go too. It’s late.”
A shadow of disappointment crossed over his features, but Gerard stood and, taking her hand, headed to the door. In a calm voice, he told her:
“Come and see me to the gate.”
Not finding a reply, she followed him outside, in the perfect darkness, her hand firmly enclosed in his.
The night was enchanting, the air fragrant with entwined smells of flowers, shrubs and trees. All these scents mixed harmoniously, forming the unmistakable fragrance of a summer night.
The two silhouettes vaguely outlined in theinky dark made their way in silence, listening to the solitary song of a cricket, which had mysteriously landed on the driveway.
Once they reached the gate, Gerard turned toward her. As though trying to dissolve the blackness with his gaze, he looked at her intently, asking:
“When will I see you again?”
“Um, I will stop over the clinic one of these days, I’m not sure when,” she answered evasively, almost stuttering.
He watched her for another long moment, then opened the gate. Before exiting, he pulled her in his arms and kissed her deeply, passionately. After that, he disappeared into the night without another word.
Stunned, Linda touched her lips with her tongue, finding his tastethere. She closed the gates, set the alarm and walked to the house like in a dream. The fact that she didn’t want to wake up worried her.
When she reached the house, her cell phone was ringing loudly and Pirata circled around it, irritated, scratching the screen, which displayed Giovanni’s number.
“Ciao, mi amato fratello!” she said delighted, grabbing the cat and climbing the stairs to her bedroom. “How are you?”
“Fine,”answered Giovanni in their melodious native tongue. “I miss you, wanted to know how you are, how are things, what have you been doing?”
“I’m good,loving this house more and more. I feel great here, and so does Pirata.”
“Judging bythe pictures you’ve sent me it seems gorgeous.”
“It really is. And so quiet.Next week the gallery is opening my art exhibit.”
“Congratulations, my beloved artist!” he said enthusiastically. “I really wish I could come, but I’m working on some projects. I must finish urgently, so I won’t be able to visit you any time soon.”
“Don’t worry, I’ll send you pictures. What have you been up to? Are you okay?”
“Very busy, but productive. I haven’t had time not even to go out with a beautiful babe,” he said laughing. “Haven’t you met any man good enough to awaken your interest?”
When sheremained silent for a few seconds, groping for an answer, Giovanni whistled.
“Uh-oh, it’s obvious.Come on, sis, tell all, who is he and what’s his name?”
“But I didn’t say anything,”she protested smiling, aware of how well her brother knew her.
“You don’t have to say anything,” he told her. “I can hear from here how loud and fast your heart is beating, clearly there’s a guy involved.”
“Oh, it… I don’t even know what to say. I met a guy, he’s a biologist at HOPE, but…”
“Interesting.What’s his name?”
“Gerard Leon,”she replied, with French pronunciation.
“French, huh? I heard they’re the best lovers in the world. Is it true?”
“Giovanni! I’m gonna hang up if you don’t cut it out,” she joked. “I’ve barely met him and it’s not what you think.”
“Why not?” he asked, already knowing the answer.
“You know why. I don’t want a man in my life. I had one and it didn’t work out. I don’t want any more bouts of unjustified jealousy, quarrels and sleepless nights. I’m better off alone and independent, without anybody to demand explanations and without anybody to take care of.”
Giovanni sighed deeply.
“Are you gonna give up men for the rest of your life just ‘cause you stumbled over a wrong one? Tony wasn’t for you, that’s that, but you gotta move on, Linda.”
“I know you’re right, but… It’s not all about Tony, although I regret what happened. It’s just that… I don’t need a man to be happy.”
“Maybe so. But if you find a man who makes you happy, you’re an idiot if you let him walk just because of your stubbornness and overly-feminist ideas!”
Shelaughed, knowing he said it all with love, not malice, and over all, knowing he was right.
“If I promise I’ll go out with him, will you stop preaching?” she asked.
“For now. But just because I have to go, I’m gonna wake up at six tomorrow morning. Linda, don’t go out with him just to shut me up. If you honestly like the guy, give him a whole-hearted chance.”
“What if I’ll regret it?”
“Better like that, than to regret all your life you haven’t tried.”
“My wise big brother! I feel somuch better for talking to you. You’re the only one who knows how to listen. Thanks!”
“Don’t mention it, baby. Miss you, love you! I’ll call you one of these days.”
“Love you too. Good night!”
Sheplaced the phone on the nightstand, holding it for a few moments longer, as if holding the hand of her brother, whom she missed so much. He had been her friend, protector, confidant and advisor, being there for her since the day she was born. He was the only person to whom she could open her soul, the only one who knew her better than anybody.
She got ready for bed, put on a silk pajama, left the door open for Pirata and got into bed, where the cat was already waiting for her. She hugged him tightly, remembering Gerard’s kiss, his embrace, so strong and passionate, wanting to hold him and to absorb all the heat and tenderness of a man. No, she wantedthatman, only him. No one else, not even her ex-husband, had awakened in her this acute need for love and passion.
Instead, she had to content herself for the moment with the furry mass full of cat-ish affection, her spoiled and devoted companion which never left her.
Gerard picked up the insistently ringing phone, still studying the stack of papers in front of him.
After a moment, he said:
“Ah, Jean-Paul,mon ami, I was about to call you. As we speak I’m revising my notes, getting ready to make some duplicates. How are you, progressing? Got any good news for me?”
Just then, Carolina entered, placing a cupof coffee on his desk. He inclined his head in athank yougesture, continuing to listen what his interlocutor was saying.
“What do you mean you can’t come? I thought we had it settled. I told you I can’t take time off right now to come at the end of the world!”
Carolina listened looking amused, a plump hip braced on a corner of his desk. Following another word-exchange, Gerard said into the phone:
“I’ll try to work it out somehow; we’ll be in touch then. Keep me posted.”
He raised his gaze tothe nurse, just then becoming truly aware of her presence.
“Is there something wrong?” she asked.
“Yes, there is something wrong,” he frowned. “Looks like I’ll have to take some time off pretty soon.”
* * *
Linda parked right in front of the gallery, occupying with her usual carelessness a parking place and a half. She got out of the car grabbing her purse, then stood for a moment looking up, at the gallery’s display window. Although it wasn’t big and imposing like the National Gallery or other such architectural monuments, the building had an archaic elegance and prestige, like all old buildings that had their own individuality.
She opened the sculptured door and entered. Inside was quiet and cool, but not the mausoleum atmosphere specific to this kind of places. Her footsteps tapped on the black and white tiles, disposed in a chessboard pattern.
All around, in strategic places, well illuminated and tastefully arranged, were sculptures, paintings and other decorative art. In the middle of the room reigned an imposing Apollo. Due to the very light color of the wood and golden varnish she had used, the statue resembled an angel.
It was her most impressive project, regarding both the dimension and the quality of the sculpture. She had made it from a piece of a massive tree, brought from a park in Italy. During a storm, the tree trunk – which couldn’t beencompassed by the linked arms of two men – was struck by lightning. Giovanni had taken care that the piece remained intact was delivered to her workshop.
The sculpture had the figure of a warrior, a straight and haughty posture. He wore a bow and quiver, its strap stretched over his bare, smooth chest, and the skimpy clothing she imagined the Olympus God of Sun would wear.
Now studying the statue with different eyes, Linda noticed in the motionless features a slight resemblance with Gerard – the strong chin, high cheekbones, straight, perfectly proportioned nose, firm but sensual lips. Those impassive eyes now seemed to transmit to her a secret known only by the two of them.
“I see him everywhere!” she told herself exasperated and still astonished by the impact she experienced only after the few hours spent in the company of a man she had barely met. She’d never felt such a thing and, although she was frustrated and intrigued, the fragile root of a joyful, crazy, adolescent attraction was taking shape in her heart.
Lost in thought, she jumped when she saw Francesco, the gallery’s owner, next to her, greeting her with a warm smile.
Francesco was a middle-aged Italian, with dark hair, tanned skin and a distinguished figure, just like the black elegant suit he wore.
“Bella mia!” he said with a baritone voice which seemed to fill the entire room. “I was wondering when you were going to stop by,” he continued in an impeccable English, but having a discreet Italian accent.
“Francesco!”she exclaimed, kissing his cheek. “You scared me.”
“Your works are so captivating even you remain hypnotized by their sight.”
“Not quite. I see you have everything arranged, it’s superb,” she remarked gesticulating like to encompass the entire room.
“We have to be ready for Saturday, my dear, the grand opening is getting close. The press, newspapers, allare waiting anxiously for the big event,” he told her. Studying her denim shorts and white tank top, he continued, wincing a bit:
“I am confident you plan to wear something more… chicthan this outfit for the occasion.”
“Oh, my, Francesco, how can you say such a thing?” she said, faking offense. “I’m gonna wear a black tank top,” she joked, then laughed at his panicked expression.
“Just kidding, darling, don’t worry.”
“Ah, you almost gave me a fright,cara! Will you have a drink, coffee, soda?”
“No, thanks.I’m sorry, but I can’t stay long, I have some more places to go. I only stopped by to see how are things and to congratulate you. Everything looks lovely!”
“Thank you, but the artists have all the merits,” he replied smiling, running a hand through his slightly graying hair. “I’m so glad you came, we’ll keep in touch by phone, I will give you all the details for Saturday.”
“Okay, then I’ll see you around,ciao!” she said waving her hand in her way to the exit.
She drove to the clinic, telling herself she wanted to know more about Gerard’s treatment.She hoped to pass unnoticed, but remembered she didn’t know where his office was. Carolina, as usually at her desk, seemed surprised to see her. The woman’s brows went up when Linda asked her where Dr. Leon’s office was. Not daring to question her, she promptly gave her indications, then returned to the reception desk.
Linda knocked discretely in his office door, marked by a sign with his name etched in golden letters.
“Come in,”he said and began massaging his tired eyes. When he opened them, they remained fixed on her long tanned legs. His gaze lifted slowly, meeting hers.
Shesmiled, hooking her thumbs in the pockets of her denim shorts.
“Hello,” he replied and stood, heading toward her. He kissed her cheek and she breathed his divine masculine scent, forever stamped in her memory.
“What brings you by?”
He indicatedthe chair in front of his desk, but Linda declined to sit. Instead, she went to the window, feeling the weight of his gaze on her.
“I had business in the areaand I thought I’d come by, to see what else the children need,” she lied, looking outside.
She turned around to look at him, then noticed the shadows under his eyes and his wrinkled shirt. Several buttons were unfastened, more than was prudent for her imagination. Even tired and unshaven, the man facing her looked gorgeous, unleashing inside her an undefined but apparently infinite desire.
“You seem tired. Is there something wrong?”she asked, feeling her cheeks grow warm.
“I don’t know if you could put it quite like that, but we have an unpredictable situation. Looks like I have to take some time off as soon as possible and leave for Romania.”
“Romania? Dracula’s land?” she exclaimed shocked. “What the hell do you want to go there for?”
He laughed indulgently, indicating the mountain of papers sprawled on his desk.
“Well, I have a friend – actually he was a good friend of my father’s – who now lives there. He’s also a doctor and in the past years, collaborating with another Romanian doctor, he has devised a treatment, based on a plant calledhellebore.It seems to give good results in certain forms of cancer. True, the results differ from case to case, and the treatment is not effective on every patient or in any form of the disease. Like the snake venom treatment, the best results are obtained in incipient stages, if they can be applied locally, especially in the beginnings of skin cancer.”
“And he wants you to go there to share with you the treatment formula?” she asked.
“Yes. In exchange, I prepared copies of all my notes, observations and research, to share with him.”
Linda approached the desk, intrigued, inspecting the scattered papers.
“Chemical formulas, observations, reports, here it’s all your work in regard to the serum made from snake venom?”
“About anything that could be put on paper.”
“And do you trust this person?”
She continued studying the notes on the desk, while he sat in his chair, studying her.
Shedirected her gaze to him.
“You could make a fortune with this thing. Why give it for free to that guy?”
Gerard gave her a long look.
“I’m not interested in money and fame, Linda. I became a doctor because themost important thing to me is healing, bringing comfort to my patients, not profiting from their tragedy. The ones who do this aren’t true descendants of Hippocrates, they’re just crooks. All my work is measured in the number of people I help, not in stacks of money.”
Something glowed in her entire being and suddenly she felt her heart lighter, ready to fly toward the nameless fulfillment she was longing for.
“You are a noble man,” she saidwith a trace of admiration. “I respect that very much.”
“I’m a man like any other,”he replied, reclining in his chair. “I have defects and qualities, nothing special compared to others. Still, I like to think I have a sense of humor better developed than most,” he added smiling. “Please, sit down. I feel uncomfortable sitting while you stand. Do you want something to drink?”
She sat in the chair facing his desk.
After a few moments of silence, he asked:
She started laughing and so did he. When they regained their composure, she said:
“That’s all I’ve heard about Romania.”
“That’s about all the rest of the world has heard too. In fact, Jean-Paul tells me it’s a very beautiful country, with extraordinary landscapes and an admirable history. There are numerous predictions and speculations that there, in the heart of the Carpathians, is the physical projection of Shambala – the spiritual center of the Earth, the land of the initiates who hold the balance of the world.”
“Really?” she asked, wide-eyed.
“Yes. I told you, it’s a very interesting country, controversial. It intrigued me ever since I listened to Jean’s stories. Speaking of history, do you know how all this Dracula story started?”
“I have no idea. You realize an intelligent person doesn’t believe in vampires and other such nonsense, but Isuppose in every legend there’s a grain of truth.”
“Actually, there was once in Romania a ruler called Vlad Tepes, which meansVlad the Impaler. He was called so because he literally impaled all thieves, criminals and all those who broke the law, as well as his enemies. They say people were afraid of him to such an extent that, when he put a gold cup at a fountain, nobody dared to take it. When it was gone, they all knew he was no longer ruling.”
“So much cruelty! I think that man was a monster!”
“Granted,those punishing methods weren’t too orthodox, but we have to take into consideration that in those times, around fifteenth century, cruelty wasn’t unusual. Not only at royal courts, but worldwide. Besides, the most horribly punished were the Ottomans, a people which, from the beginnings of history, tried to subjugate the entire Europe and beyond, having a personal ambition to conquer Romania.”
“Hmm, what an odd thing. I didn’t know all this, but it didn’t even occur to me to read about it,” she confessed meditatively. “So, all these atrocious torture methods have created the image of Bram Stocker’s vampire monster?”
“This, along with otherbits and pieces of elements gathered from here and there or invented. For example, Vlad’s father, called Vlad Dracul, which meansThe Devil,was part of the Dragon’s Order. Their symbol was a creature resembling a dragon from Oriental Mythology, having claws and fangs. This kind of distorted legends created false myths which mystify history. In reality, Romanians consider Vlad Tepes one of their country’s best rulers and a character they can be proud of.”
Linda ran a hand through her hair.
“Discussing with you is really helpful. I always learn new things,” she remarked.
He returned her smile and the fatigue shadows on his face seemed to slowlydissipate.
“I could tell you a lot more interesting things tonight at dinner.”
She wet her lower lip involuntarily, whileher heart gave a little thud as an effect to this proposal. After a few moments of inner debate, she asked:
“Do you like Italian food?”
Linda had learned to cookfrom an early age. She used to spend hours watching fascinated as Sophia, their cook, prepared sumptuous meals for the Coriola family, which, back then, was still intact.
Sofia was aplump woman with ever-rosy cheeks and grey hair always covered with colorful scarves. When Linda had asked the woman to teach her a few simple recipes, Sofia had been delighted with the little girl’s passion for gastronomy, immediately taking her under her wing as a domestic goddess. And so, in a few years, Linda – who was already in her teens – had gained the experience of a high class chef.
At the moment however,it seemed all her culinary knowledge had left her. Ever since she’d hired Mrs. Adams to cook for her – for the convenience of being able to dedicate her time to sculpting, not bothering with domestic stuff – she got the impression she’d lost her touch.
Sheprecisely aligned all the ingredients she needed on the counter, then she sat on a chair next to Pirata, who curiously assisted the preparations.
For a few good minutes they both sat, watching the spaghetti, spices, mushrooms, cheese and ham, all military arranged. The cat’s gaze was lustful, his nose and whiskers twitching with interest. By contrast, Linda’s gaze reflected a shadow of something resembling desperation.
Eventually, with a deep resigned sigh, she stood and got to work. The Carbonara Spaghetti was her favorite dish and quite simple to prepare.
While working efficiently without conscious effort, carried by the rhythm which had never truly left her, she started an animated discussion with Pirata.
“I don’t know what I was thinking, invitinghim for dinner,” she told the cat without noticing that he’d just slid a paw on the counter to steal yet another piece of ham. “I mean, look at me,” she gesticulated with the knife she used for cutting mushrooms. “Instead of minding my business, I’m cooking for a guy. And I don’t even know if he’ll like this. As a matter of fact, I know very well why he’s coming to dinner. He’s only interested in thedessert…”
Remembering the way he’d kissed her the night before, of how incredibly sexy he’d looked sitting at his desk - unshaven, his shirt nearly unbuttoned - she became aware of her own need and desperate craving for a decadentdessert.
Bypassing the fantastic wayhe was built, she had to admit he was a special man.Noble, that’s how she’d called him and meant it.
“Why do I have to complicate stuff?” she demandedagain of Pirata, who was washing his paws, satiated. “I’m just gonna go with it, not sit around analyzing every little thing. Giovanni was right, not all men are a pain in the ass, some of them are worth the trouble.”
At the end of this monologue, during which she had been moving like an efficient robot, she discovered amazed the meal was almost ready. She made the final touches, arranged everything in expensive formal plates and, consulting her watch, exclaimed in panic:
“It’s a quarter to eight! Gerard has to be here at eight sharp!”
So saying, she ran up the stairs to her bedroom, while the cat was watching her placidly.
She quickly applied some basic makeup. Afterward, she pulled ona white backless dress that reached her knees, splendid by simplicity and elegance.
Her only jewelry wasthe ring she never took off and a pair of delicate pearl earrings.
Precisely when she descended the stairs, she heard the intercom’s buzz. She pressed the button to unlock the gates, opening the front door in time to see a black Jeep advancing on her driveway.
Gerard parked in front of the garage and got out of hiscar. He opened the passenger door, revealing an enormous flowers bouquet, then headed toward her. He wore midnight blue pants and a white shirt, opened at the neck. The white cotton created a delicious contrast with his tanned chest. She felt her entire body reacting like a metallic splinter attracted by a huge magnet.
When he reached her, she noticed he’d shaved.
My God, he is completely magnificent!she thought, while his mesmerizing green gaze was drilling into her, as if intuiting all her thoughts and sensations.
He handed her the bouquet -a combination of white roses and white lilac, spreading a divine perfume. He took in her white dress, the thin material which seemed to flow down her body, subtly emphasizing every curve.
“I can see I chose the flowers very well, they perfectly match you andyour attire. You are splendid,” he said and bent to kiss her cheek. She involuntarily turned her head and his lips touched the corner of her mouth.
Linda felt his hot breath next to her lips. Entranced by his nearness and the dizzying smell of his perfume, she turned her head another fraction. Their mouths touched in a kiss that would have been as chaste as the white flowers between them, if it weren’t for the explosive sensuality each felt in the other’s presence.
Gerard touched her lips with his once more, then slowly traced them with one finger,as if caressing an exotic flower’s petals.
He slightly stepped back from her, noticing Pirata, who had come to inspect the intruder. Amused, he bent to scratch the cat’s chin, being repaid with a generous purring sound.
Sheinvited him inside, then prompted him to have a seat on the living room sofa, while she put the flowers in a water vase from the kitchen.
“Would you rather we ate in a more formal ambient or in the kitchen?” she asked, aware her dress wasn’t suited for a kitchen meal.
“Definitely in the kitchen. You don’t have to be formal with me, Linda,” he replied. “Do you need me to help you with anything?”
“Just with eating,” she joked. “Come into the kitchen then.”
While he sat at the counter, she mentally congratulated herself for being such a tidy cook. Because she immediately cleaned all surfaces while she was cooking, her kitchen always looked as new. She secretly took pride in that.
She arranged the dishes, then brought the spaghetti.
“Hmm, they look almost as good as you!”
“Thanks, but I can assure you they taste a lot better!”
“I seriously doubt that,”he replied, watching her in that particular way which never failed to incite her.
After he had his first taste, Gerard remarked:
“It’s absolutely delicious! Where’d you learn to cook this stuff?”
“Back home, when I was a child, we had an excellent cook. Sophia taught me everything I know. Unfortunately, lately I became pretty lazy and I rarely cook.”
“I’ve always loved Italian food the most. It’s got… something special, just like Italian women. My mother always prompted me to find an Italian girl.”
“And you didn’t succeed?” she asked jokingly.
“I did now,”he answered in a serious tone, his eyes resting on hers.
They looked at each other for a long moment, in silence. She was the first to break that intense visual contact. She resumed the conversation, changing the subject as if nothing had happened.
They went on with their meal, making small talk, while Pirata was twirling around their feet, meow-ing conversationally.
“I’m sorry, but I haven’t had time to prepare dessert,” she apologized while cleaning the table. “However, I’ve ordered something delicious.”
Gerard stood, putting his dishes in the sink.
“What? So far, dinner was great.”
Linda went to the fridge and produced an ornate bowl emanating an appetizing smell. After generously filling two dessert bowls, she put them on the table.
“Caramel cream. Haven’t you ever had this before?”
He studied it curiously, then used his spoon to test and taste the creamy surface.
“Hmm, I’ve never tasted something this good in my whole life!” he exclaimed, his eyes closed in delight. “Would you like to go in the living room? A good movie in your company is all that’s missing.”
Shesmiled, taking her own cream bowl and spoon.
“You’ll have to watch that cream at all times! Pirata loves it.”
They installed themselves comfortably on the living room sofa. Following a short debate regarding her DVD movie collection, they decided to watchFar and Away, a sort of romantic comedy, starring Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman.
The movie had barely begun and Gerard’s bowl was empty. Linda laughed when she saw him placing it on the table.
“Do you want some more?” she asked, puttingher half-eaten dessert next to his empty bowl.
“No, thanks. It was delicious, but I’m full. At least, for now.”
“Let meknow if you change your mind.”
He sank deeply between the cushions and, with almost studied nonchalance, put an arm around her, on the sofa’s backrest.
On the screen, Tom and Nicole were exchanging witty lines. The tasteful humor made both spectators laugh out loud.
“I would love to visitIreland one day,” she confessed, referring to the country where the movie’s action was taking place. “And another thing on my to-see list is Stonehenge. Though I’ve been in England for months now, I’ve never taken the time to visit it yet. But I plan to.”
Gerard watched her curiously.
“I guess that means we have a common goal?”
When he nodded, she went on:
“Ever since I was in high school, when we learned about Stonehenge during History classes, I was fascinated by the pictures of that place, by all the legends going around about the origin and purpose of those megaliths, about druids. I’m fascinated by everything tied to Celtic culture, although I don’t know much about it.”
“Frankly speaking,”he said, “I believe no one knows anything for sure. They all make speculations based on some research or facts and the hypotheses of the ones who invent opinions. But you’re right, places like Stonehenge are spectacular. It’s incredible to simply admire them, to imagine the efforts of the people or any other entities that have built them, driven by ideas or purposes known only by them. I intend to visit it too, one day.”
“Maybe we’ll go together,” she suggested.
Gerard looked at her smiling.
“I would like that.Perhaps when I get back from Romania.”
Sheabsently scratched Pirata’s ears, as he was rubbing against her feet.
“Whendo you plan to leave? And how will you get there?”
“Well, as soon as possible I’ll reserve a plane ticket. When I’ll get there, I’ll rent a car or something.”
He slowly rubbed his chin, watching her meditatively.
“Why don’t you come with me?” he asked her, so suddenly it had probably been a potentially crazy impulse.
Shestared at him, stunned.
“Me? In Romania?”
“What’s the problem?”
“W-well, in two days I have the opening of my art exhibit, I have to be there,” she stuttered.
“Ihope you plan to invite me too. I can’t wait to see what you can do,” he replied, his white teeth gleaming in the playful light beams coming from the TV screen – the only source of light in the dark room. “But we could leave next week. Or do you have something against Romania?”
Linda massaged her forehead with two fingers. The guy demolished her every argument like awrecking ball.
“I don’t have anything against it, but I can’t just leave. What do I do with Pirata?” she asked with renewed hope.
He thought it over for a moment.
“Didn’t you say you have a housekeeper? She could take care of him. We won’t stay longer than twoor three days. Or don’t you wanna come with me?”
She sighed profoundly.
“It’s not about that…”
Under his steady gaze, she felt herself weakening.
“I’ll think about it, I promise. And I’ll try to find a way to organize my stuff. Now let’s watch the movie, okay? I didn’t even pay attention.”
Meanwhile, the movie’s action had moved from Ireland to America and the adventures of the twoprotagonists oscillated between amusing and tragic.
“I’ve always wanted to have curly hair,” she said dreamily, admiring Nicole Kidman’s thick wavy hair. “Look at her, she’s gorgeous with that hair.”
Gerard ran his hands softly through her hair, thoughtfully analyzing a long strand.
“Your hair is lovely just the way it is,” he told her and she turned her face to his. “Ever since I first saw you I admired it. And after last night, its scent has remained ingrained into my memory.Youremained ingrained into my head.”
Shelooked at him, speechless. The games of light and shadow coming from the screen reflected on his face. In one moment, they emphasized only his deep eyes watching her with their unmoving spark. Then the light fell over his lips, sensual and so alluring, capable of offering the most skilful kisses. Those lips were getting increasingly closer to hers, his warm breath making her whole body tremble with desire.
An almost imperceptive shiver ran through her from head to toe at the first touch of hislips. When the kiss intensified, passion seized them both, engulfing them in thousands of sensations, nameless, but of a crushing profoundness.
When Gerard drewher against him, running his hands over her soft skin, she was lost in his touch, in the masculine scent stirring her senses. She felt his lips and steamy breath on her neck, turning all her previous doubts into imaginary ashes. She wanted this man with every particle of her being and his every gesture proved he was as lost as she in the intensity of those same feelings.
Gerard slowly drew back from her, stood and turned off the TV.They both remained in darkness - two silhouettes outlined in the weak light sneaking through one of the huge living room windows.
He enfolded her in his arms again, whispering with his lips onhers:
“Where’s the bedroom? Show me.”
Without a word, she took his hand and headed toward the stairs, then they were lost in silence and blackness.
In the bedroom floated the same diffuse lunar light, filtered through the windows and a vague lavender smell perfumed the air.
He embraced her, kissing her deeply,exploring her naked back with rough palms. Under her curtain of hair, he found the strap which held her dress in place, knotted at her nape. He slowly untied it, causing the white dress to slide on the floor with a sensual rustle.
They remained face to face. She – naked, he – still fully dressed, an erotic tableau in the moonlight.
Gerard laid her tenderly on the bed, then got up and began undressing. Each inch of naked, gorgeous body emanated purely masculine attraction. Linda had the impression that through her own skin transpired mists of lust. She studied his strong arms, the networks of veins subtly outlined, his magnificent chest covered with soft golden hair, his abdomen – perfectly sculpted and proportioned, like everything that went lower.
She sigheddeeply. For a split second, in the vertigo of emotions tangled in her soul, a trace of insecurity and fear of unknown shadowed her euphoric state.
But when shefelt him close, massive and hard above her, all rational thoughts turned into imaginary smoke and dissipated in the exterior universe, leaving the two solitary figures in the night, entangled in passion’s abyss.
His senses were the first to awake. He felt her scent, permanently stamped in his mind, then became aware of the silk sheets surrounding him and of the empty place occupied in the night by his dreams’ nymph. Could it be that he’d only dreamed?
Gerard opened his eyes, studying the room he was seeing for the first time in daylight. A feminine room, with light blue walls, like the soft sheets, honey-colored furniture and pastel curtains.
So it hadn’t been a dream, he’d really had her beside him last night, receiving from her the same passion burning in him ever since he’d met her.
A movementhe caught in his peripheral vision made him jerk defensively. Pirata had jumped on the bed with cat-ish nonchalance, coming close to sniff him. Judging by his insistent meows, he was probably asking about breakfast.
Gerardrubbed his own chin, finding it slightly abrasive, then scratched the cat’s ears.
“You’re on your own, buddy, regarding food. If you tell me where I can find your lovely mistress, I could put in a good word for you.”
As expected, the cat stared at him with steady blue eyes, but the meow he let out didn’t seem to divulge his mistress’ location, only his own feline interests.
He recovered his clothes from the floor and, after a short inner debate, decided to take a quick shower in Linda’s bath. As the towels were damp, he suspected she’d done the same.
“How the hell didn’t I wake up?” he asked himself surprised. Since childhood, he’d had a very light sleep, always being in a semi-alert state. The answer, however, was going to remain a mystery.
Showered, he pulled on his pants and went off searching Linda. While inspecting all rooms, he accidentally spotted her through one of the living room’s windows. She was in the gazebo that served as her workshop.
As he got closer, he couldn’t take his eyes away from her. Even like this, dressed in rough work-clothes, her hair carelessly knotted on top of her head and wearing thick gloves, she looked lovely. At least, that’s how she appeared to him. He saw she held a sort of chisel, handling it with amazing dexterity on the wooden surface she was sculpting.
“Is that a hand or am I imagining?” he asked.
Linda didn’t even flinch, continuing to adjust, then to polish.
“Yeah. Do you like it?”
She moved aside so he could better see the two hands, their wrists rising from a wooden base.
“It’s great,”he answered, truly impressed. “You have an extraordinary talent at sculpting, among other things,” he added, taking her in his arms, chisel and all.
They kissed deeply,the past night’s revelations still hovering between them. Linda smiled dreamily.
“They’re your hands,” she told him. Reading the astonishment on his face, she elaborated:
“I’m fascinated by your hands. They’re so strong, agile, capable of saving lives and offeringa woman unimaginable sensations.”
A satisfied smile slowly widened on his face.
“So I wasn’t the only one who experienced unimaginable sensations… I thought I’d dreamed.”
Linda shook her head, wrapping her arm around his neck.
“If you dreamed, it means we both had the same dream.”
When they reached the house, Pirata greeted them withhigh meows, alarmingly sounding close to desperation. Linda picked him up.
“I’m so sorry, darling, I forgot about your food. I’ll make it up to you right now, promise!”
She put him down, then opened a can of succulent cat food and served his meal outside on the veranda.
“What would you like to eat?”she asked Gerard.
“I’m not especially hungry, but I wouldn’t saynoto some of that caramel cream, if there’s any left.”
“Of course,I always order extra portions. There’s a small restaurant pretty close from here, it serves delicious food.”
So saying, she got the cream bowl out of the fridge and put the content in two small bowls. She added another one full with fresh strawberries.
“I could get used to such pampering,” he said, putting his arms around her with an intimacy reserved for steady couples and long-term relationships. She tensed slightly, making him think this gesture had triggered a vague trace of alarm in her mind. He hoped in tie he’d manage to chase away all the doubts dwelling in her soul, using patience and tenderness as his weapons.
“Sit down and let’s eat,”she urged, gently caressing his bare chest, her gaze locked on it. She was seeing him half-naked for the first time in daylight and, if he wasn’t mistaken, that generated feelings which normally should have been exhausted after a night of love-making. He felt the same. Now he wanted her more than ever, not only from a sexual point of view. The vision of them, together in her house gave him a sensation of good, of fulfillment.
They sat at the counter savoring breakfast and Pirata joined them, full and quiet.
“What are yourplans for today?” she asked.
“Well, after wefinish eating, I’ll go to the clinic. How about you?”
“I wanna finish sculpting what Ibegan this morning, your hands. It’s a record for me, I’ve never finished anything so quickly. Then I’ll take it to Francesco, at the gallery, for display only, not for sale. I know I’m coming up with this in the last moment, but I’m fairly sure he won’t complain.”
Gerard looked at her fondly.
“I feel flattered, you know… I don’t even know what to say.”
“You don’t have to say anything. I just hope you’ll like the final product.”
“Ialready do, you can be sure of that.”
When they finished eating, hetold her:
“First I have to go home and change. Although I’ve used your shower, as far as I can remember, my clothes are un-wearable in the crumbled state I’ve left them, lying on the floor.”
She smiled and rose.
“Let’s see if I can remedy them somehow.”
They both entered the sun-bathed bedroom. Clothes were sprawled everywhere. The bed was covered with silk sheets tangled in a sensual mess, which was carrying the vivid memory of the night they’d shared.
She threw a rapid glance toward the bed. As if embarrassed, she bent awkwardly, picking up clothes.
Gerard took them from her hand and threw them downagain. He drew her to him, lifting her chin until she met his eyes.
“Look at me,”he said gently. ”Why are you acting like this?”
“Like what?” she asked his clavicle.
“As though we’re two strangers, as though you regret or want to forget everything that’s happened.”
Lindalifted her eyes to meet his inquiring gaze.
“Idon’tregret what happened, you can be sure of that. It’s just… I don’t know how to act. It’s the first time this has happened to me. I mean, my ex-husband was the first and only man I have ever… made love to,” she ended shyly, looking down again, without noticing the satisfied and tender expression in his eyes.
Gerard buried his face in her hair and kissed her forehead, trying to find an appropriate way to voice his feelings. Finally, he said:
“You have no ideahow happy I am for being here with you. I’m proud because you offered me the privilege of touching you, of having you and proving to you all the feelings you stir in my soul. This is new for me too. I’ve never felt for any woman what I feel for you, Linda. I’ve never fallen in love with a woman from the first second I met her. Never, until I met you.”
He almost felt her heart contracting insurprise and pleasure, but a shadow of doubt crossed over her beautiful features. She watched him intensely, as if searching for something. He hoped she found the simple sincerity in the depths of his eyes.
As he’d expected,she didn’t yet dare to admit that her feelings mirrored his. Instead, she kissed him with all the infinite passion she’d told him only he could inspire in her.
Gerard returned her kiss, trying to ignore the painful twinge caused by the lack of any declaration from her. Though he hadn’t expected to break all her barriers so soon, he still experienced the bitter taste of disappointment.
“You’ll have to be very patient, buddy!”he told himself, then all thoughts left him as he abandoned himself into her arms. He covered her body with hot kisses, while clothes were thrown once more on the floor.
* * *
After Gerard left, Linda got back to work. She dedicated herself to each project with absolute abnegation, but this small sculpture – apparently insignificant – meant to her so much more than just two wooden hands.
While she adjusted and polished, using the chisel to trace lines and curves known only by her, recollections of the past night were completely occupying her thoughts. If she hadn’t had the tangible proof of those hands, she would’ve thought everything had been a dream, figment of her imagination. But it was real, each moment spent beside him had been real.
Shesmiled, remembering how timid and reserved she’d been at first, not knowing exactly what he expected from her. Then Gerard had chased away her uneasiness using tenderness and sensuality, sensual caresses and kisses more intense than she’d ever imagined could exist.
Of course, she hadn’t ever been that intimate with anyone. The sexual relationship she’d had with Tony couldn’t even compare with the magical night she and Gerard had shared.
Instead, he was obviously an expert in bed, a master in offering satisfaction and indescribable pleasure to a woman. The thought of all the women who had probably went through his bed provoked her an almost physical pain, like an open heart incision.
Then she remembered his words, his astonishing declaration from that morning and doubts seized her again. Had he told those words to all his lovers or were they really true? Was he really in love with her? He seemed a noble, honest man, but one could never be sure…
Onething was clear: she had indeed fallen for him, irredeemable and so fast even she hadn’t realized it until then.
For a moment she deeply regretted she hadn’t confessed her feelings toward him. However, she quickly consoled herself thinking that time wasn’t lost. There will be other occasions. It was still too soon.
Gerard reached his office just in time to hear the phone ringing insistently. He grabbed the receiver and answered:
“How are you, honey? I tried your cell phone, but it’s turned off.”
“Sorry, Mom, I forgot to recharge it. My battery ran out last night.”
While my other batteries functioned at full power!he thought with a satisfied grin.
“How are you?” he asked cheerfully. “How’s aunt Sophie?”
“Fine, we’re both fine, but we miss you terribly, so I called to inform you that you’re coming to visit tomorrow. I bet you haven’t eaten a healthy meal since you’ve been here last.”
“Oh, so you’re informing, not inviting me. Yes, M’am, orders are to be executed, not disputed. Anyway, I planned to come see you. I’ve something to tell you.”
Driven by a momentary impulse, he added:
“Do you mind if I bring a girlfriend?”
Chantalle Leon remained silent for a beat, taken by surprise by this unprecedented situation. Then she said:
“Well… You’ve finally found one good enough to bring and introduce her to me?”
He laughed lightly.
“Something like that.You’ll meet her. See you tomorrow around lunch, ok? Maybe you could make some chocolate pancakes, you know, your special recipe.”
“I planned to, in any case. We’re expecting you. Kiss you, dear!”
“So do I, Mom. Bye!”
If she almost had a heart-attack when I told her I was in love with her, she’ll surely faint when she’ll hear I’m taking her to meet my mother!he thought with a profound sigh, while he was putting on his white lab coat, preparing to visit his patients. The progress of his experimental treatment gave him hope, energy and a motivation stronger than ever.
* * *
Linda worked almost all day long, losing the notion of time. That happened whenever she focused very hard on work. Only when the light decrease visibly, she realized the evening sun had retired in its secret sanctuary. She was starving.
She applied a final layer of varnish tothe finished sculpture, then stepped back to admire her creation. It might not have been spectacular, but to her it had a special significance. She decided going to the gallery the next day to hand it to Francesco. Abandoning in the bathroom her clothes full of sawdust, varnish, sweat and other substances, she took a hot shower. Afterwards she pulled on a thin robe, went downstairs and faced the fridge. She ate some left over spaghetti, then took a glass of milk and a box of cookies, sitting in front of the TV, with Pirata keeping her company. Before she could grab the remote, her phone, placed on the coffee table started ringing. It was Gerard.
“How are you, beautiful? Do you miss me?” he asked and only his deep masculine voice spiced with that sexy French accent, made her shiver pleasantly.
“Honestly? Yes, I do miss you,” she admitted. “Even though it’s been just a few hours since we’ve seen each other.”
“It’s been a century.However, I didn’t call you for this, but to invite you to lunch tomorrow.”
“Tomorrow?”she repeated, a trace of disappointment in her voice. “Aren’t you coming tonight… I mean, don’t you wanna go out somewhere tonight?”
“I would really love to, baby, but Istill have a lot of work here, at the clinic – both in the lab and office. I want to put everything together, to prepare the file I intend to give to Jean-Paul. Besides, tonight I have an unexpected guest - a friend from college who’s visiting London. We haven’t seen each other in over ten years.”
“I see,” she replied,an involuntary sigh escaping her. “Okay then, have fun with your friend and I’ll see you tomorrow.”
“I can’t wait to see you,”he whispered huskily, his words seeming to melt on the soft skin of her ear and neck. “Oh, I almost forgot, we’re having lunch at my mom’s.”
Linda jumped as thoughthe sofa had bitten her ass. “Where, how… What do you mean? Why?”
He laughed, overly amused by her reaction.
“Don’t worry, baby, you’ll like her. She’s a very nice woman. I was ordered to come to lunch tomorrow and I said I’d bring you along.”
“B-b-But… I don’t know if I can make it. I have to go to Francesco,” she stuttered, alarmed, without even knowing why and where this stupid panic had appeared.
“Youcan handle it, I have no doubt. I’ll come and pick you up around twelve. Dress casually, it’s gonna take us some time to get there. My mother lives in the suburbs. Kiss you, my love, dream about me tonight!”
“Kiss you too,” she replied and put down the phone, while an icy bundle of unknown origins formed in her stomach. Why did he want her to meet his mother? And why the hell was she so panicked by this thought?
Without findingany answers to these questions, Linda buried herself deeper into the cushions, changing channels without actually seeing anything in front of her eyes. She didn’t even notice that Pirata was tremendously enjoying her milk and cookies.
* * *
After taking a quick shower, Gerard laid on the bed exhausted, relaxing his naked body between the cool sheets. Each of his muscles was aching due to an entire night of love-making, an extremely long but satisfying work-day and two hours in his old friend’s company. Christian was a nice guy, but so talkative that Gerard had whispered a thankful prayer when the guy had finally left, promising they will keep in touch.
His thoughts flew to Linda, who was never far from his mind and soul. He wondered what she was doing, if she yearned for his presence in her bed, if she wanted him as much as he wanted her right in that moment. He fell asleep in the imaginary arms of his lover, not knowing she was doing the same. For tonight, at least in dreams they were together.
Linda awoke with an odd hangover sensation and a dull headache. She opened her eyes but immediately closed them again in defensive toward the cheerful sunrays invading her bedroom. She’d forgotten to lower the shutters again. She vaguely asked herself why the hell was it necessary to wake up at sunrise. Then she remembered Francesco, that she had to take him the sculpture, have lunch with Gerard and his mother…
She stood suddenly, then, moaning, grabbed her head with both hands. It was threatening to roll on the floor because of the pain.
This cannot be happening, this day is a disaster!she told herself.If I really have to meet Mrs. Leon –was that her name? –why couldn’t it have been on a day when I was well-rested?
She hated waking up early. However, since she’d met Gerard, it seemed she did only that.
“I doubt he’s worth the effort,” she muttered, addressing Pirata, who had come to give her a morning kiss. Then she smiled, stretching languorously.
“Hell… The guy’s worth any effort!” she told the cat, then dragged herself into the bathroom, under the shower, ruthlessly turning on the cold water.
Piratasat on the toilet lid, washing his paws, listening with the habit’s indifference the curses and unidentifiable noises coming from under the cold jet.
Linda got out of thebath still frowning, but feeling a little more alive. She descended into the kitchen, fed the cat and made herself a strong cup of coffee. She usually didn’t even have coffee in the house, because she didn’t drink any, but Mrs. Adams did, so… Seeing as desperate situations demanded desperate measures, she mentally thanked Mrs. Adams sipping the hot liquid.
Taking her mug in the bedroom, she faced the closet, trying to imagine what she should wear for her first encounter with the mother of a man to whom she had a more or less sexual affair.
Who are you trying to fool?she self-admonished.You’re in love with him head over heels. By all appearances, he’s fallen for you too.
After a long analysis, she decided on a cotton blue dress, with a bow tied around the waist. The skirt was wavy, reaching a few inches below her knees. It resembled a bit the notorious dress Marilyn Monroe had wore in the movieSeven year itch, where the diva had let her dress flutter, exposing her underwear – that scene had made history.
The dress made her look respectable and serious, but not excessively conservative.
“Only the color is different,” she said aloud, studying herself in the mirror. “And the cup size.”
Sighing, she changed in jeans and a black tank top, carefully placing the dress on a chair.
She put on a pair of sunglasses that covered half of her face, then went downstairs.
She took from the hallway the sculpture sheintended to take to Francesco. She placed the object, wrapped in paper, on the passenger seat of her car. Following a short debate, she fastened the seatbelt over it, laughing by herself.
“It’s like I’m transporting the Crown Jewels,” she said amused, as she drove to the gallery.
“You are a treasure,bella mia!” exclaimed Francesco, analyzing ecstatically the small wood piece. Did you make this in a single day?”
“Yeah. I had… inspiration,” she answered, watching the features resembling her lover’s, features she had carved herself on the Apollo’s wooden face. The statue reigned in the middle of the room, imposing, as though defying the entire human kind with amused superiority. “I was afraid you have nowhere to put it,” she went on.
“Ah,bella mia, there’s always room for brilliant works,” he said in his baritone voice. “Annarita, come here, my dear!”
Fromthe shadows of a lateral corridor appeared a stunningly beautiful young woman – tall, graceful, her long black hair reaching her waist and a pair of dark eyes exuding charm. Francesco introduced her to Linda:
“My dear, thisis Annarita, my assistant, imported straight from our birth land, because only the great Michelangelo Buonarotti’s compatriots know to appreciate and create true art. This is Ms. Linda Coriola, the jewel of our humble gallery.”
Annarita inclined her head a fraction, saying in Italian:
“It’s an honor for me to meet you, Ms. Coriola. I have admired your works ever since I first saw them. You have an extraordinary talent.”
Linda smiled and offered her hand, replying in the same language:
“It’s very nice to meet you, Annarita! Please call me Linda, I don’t think I’m very much older than yourself. Thank you for your compliments.”
“Annarita is also going to become a great sculptress. She is a student at the Art University,” Francesco intervened. “She will follow into your footsteps,cara mia.”
“I wish you the bestof luck in this career choice,” Linda told the young woman. “And now, please excuse me, but I must go.”
Francesco vaguely gesticulated, the sculpture still in his hand.
“Won’t you stay to see where we can find a place to arrange your new work?” he protested.
“I’m sure you and Annarita will find the ideal spot. Take care of it. It might not seem like much, but… It has a special significance to me. See you on Saturday!”
Smiling, she threw another glanceat the statue of Apollo, then said goodbye to the two.
Since she had enough free time until twelve o’clock, when Gerard had promised to pick her up, she wandered through the city, indulging with some shopping. She intended to practice her culinary expertise by preparing delicious meals for her lover, now and again.
Now and again?
She was just loading the bags into her trunk when this thought made her freeze, her hands in the air.
This sounds like we have a long-term relationship.Why the hell am I so alarmed by this prospect? Maybe I should go see a shrink.
Shrugging with a deep sigh, she arranged the bags, locked the trunk and headed home.
Once she got there, she munched onan apple and two biscuits as she began to fix herself for their lunch visit.
She carefully did her makeup, using only black eye-liner and mascara tocontour her blue cat eyes. They made a nice contrast with her slightly tanned skin. Following that, she applied a pale pink lipstick and considered the makeup thing done.
She put on her blue dress, almost the same shade as her eyes, searching for a matching purse. She slipped her feet into casual black sandals. Finally, she brushed her long hair and twisted it into a sort of knot at her nape, elegant but casual in the same time.
She was just throwing a last glance in the mirror when the intercom buzzed, indicating Gerard’s presence in front of her gates.
She quickly descended the stairs and pressed the button to open the gates, unlocked the front door and went again in the bedroom to retrieve her purse. As she descended the stairs for the second time, Gerard was just letting himself in. He stopped in the doorway, looking up at her, his gaze lingering on her body in a way which never ceased to make her feel literally hot.
“You are superb, my love!” he said, reaching out a hand to help her descend the last steps.
“You don’t look half bad yourself,” she replied studying his simple attire, consisting of jeans that fitted perfectly in all the right places and a white short-sleeved T-shirt. It perfectly highlighted the excellent muscle tone of his chest, shoulders and arms.
When he encircled her waist and tightened his hold, bending to kiss her, she stepped back a little. Gerard, not understanding her seemingly rejection gesture, asked irritated:
“I just applied my lipstick. I wanna make a good impression to your mom, I didn’t want to wipe…”
She wasn’t able to finish the sentence becausehis lips crushed hers in a deep stormy kiss, his arms pressing her close to his body, with untamed passion.
“All night I’ve dreamed only about this - your lips, your naked body next to mine,” he whispered. “I don’t know what you’re doing to me, Linda, but I’m addicted to you like air. I want you more than I could imagine it’s possible.”
“I feel the same way,baby, and you have no idea how much that scares me,” she replied breathless, nestling against his strong chest, where it seemed the very center of her universe had taken residence.
He lifted her chin and gazed into her eyes.
“Why should you be scared of something so wonderful, the feelings we share together?”
She hidher face again into his chest.
“Because it’s something new, because I’ve never felt this in my life, because I’m afraid…”
“Not to be hurt. Not to hurt you ifour relationship isn’t gonna work.”
He slightly steppedback from her.
“Linda, I understand you were hurt by your ex-husband…”
“It’s not aboutthat,” she interrupted. “Tony didn’t hurt me, not the way you assume. Now I realize I don’t even think I loved him, not the way I… I never felt for him even a fraction of what I feel for you. It’s just that, I don’t know why, I began to avoid obligations, to cherish the independence which I totally lacked when I was with him.”
Gerard watched her skeptically while she took out a little mirror and lipstick from her purse, trying to apply it with a not-so-steady hand.
“And do you honestlythink having a serious relationship with me would affect your independence?” he asked her in a tone that made the idea seem juvenile and stupid.
She moved her eyes from the mirror to him.
“I don’t know. Maybe not. Gerard, this is not the time to discuss it. What matters is today. Today we’re together and we’re fine. We have all the time in the world to analyze things, to know each other better. Right?”
As thoughhe deciphered the confusion and plea in her voice, he displayed a slightly forced smile and said:
“You’re right, my love.Let’s go, I don’t want my mom greeting us with a lecture because we’re late.”
She was in the middle of a deep breath of relief when he added:
“I’ll abandon the subject for a while, but I’ll leave you with one last thought. I’m determined to break down all the barriers standing between us. I want to have you whole, Linda. Not only your body, but your soul as well.”
The road became a real pleasure once they passed the sectors where rush hour trafficwas more intense. The Jeep slid smoothly on the highway. From the speakers, Bon Jovi proclaimed his anonymous eternal love in a sensual, abrasive voice.
“I’ve always loved car rides, but only having a flawless driver,” said Linda, looking through the window at the oscillating landscapes, always in motion.
“Anddo I qualify?” he teased.
“Yes,”she answered truthfully. “You’re an amazing driver.”She cleared her voice and went on:
“If you’ve proceeded to… invite me to meet your mother, tell me something about her. What does she do, what kind of person is she? You didn’t even tell me her name.”
Gerard loweredthe CD player’s volume to facilitate conversation.
“Well, let’s start with the essentials: her name is Chantalle Leon, she was a French teacher almost all her life. Now she’s retired. She lives in her sister’s house – my aunt Sophie – who was also widowed many years ago. Her husband, an Englishman called Thomas Barry, died in a terrible car crash. Ever since that time, my mother and Sophie are sharing auntie’s house. They’re both fanatical gardeners, they have some huge, impressive gardens and started a small business, selling floral arrangements. Both of them make sachets, and my mother is a true artist at handmade jewelry. She’s always trying to stuff my pockets with stones and other paraphernalia, which are supposed to protect my aura or something…”
Shesmiled, smoothing her dress.
“You don’t believe in these things?”
“I believe in theindividual’s self-protection. The rest depends on God, fate, you name it. But, first of all, I think our destiny depends on us.”
“Interesting point of view. I agree.”
“In any case, if mom gives you a charm or any other thing, accept it, even if it freaks you out and you’ll put it in a dark corner,” he advised. “Otherwise she’ll feel very offended.”
“Thank God you told me!”she joked. “The last thing I want is to become your mother’s enemy or get on her bad side. Anyway, I’m not so rude as to refuse a gift. You really made me curious. Your mother seems like an extremely interesting woman.”
“You’ll meet her right away,”he replied focusing his gaze ahead, beyond the windshield. “We’re almost there.”
He took a corner, getting on a road – more like a country path – bordered by trees, at the end of which was a house.
Lindanoticed that, around here, houses were located at three or four miles distance from one another. That gave the entire area an intimate, even isolated appearance.
The building towardwhich they were headed was simple, painted white. As they got closer, the house seemed stranded in the middle of a green abyss.
“You weren’t kidding when you said she’s got some impressive gardens,” she remarked admiringly. “The surrounding property is enormous!”
He smiled, stoppingthe car behind another one, parked along the small driveway facing the house.
“The property is not so big. It just seems that way compared to the house, which is tiny. It’s got only two bedrooms and, as you can see, one storey.”
“But it’s so pretty,” she said, studyingthe white building, with a dark red roof and matching windows and door-frames. “Looks like Snow White’s house!”
Gerard got out of thecar then opened her door. Hand in hand, they headed toward the little house. Linda was throwing curious glances all around, marveling at the sight of shrubs, trees, bushes and floral arrangements – veritable vegetation masterpieces.
The door opened and a woman appearedsmiling widely, exuding an almost palpable energy. She was short, a tad plump, with blonde unruly hair and inquiring brown eyes.
“Welcome, my darlings!” she exclaimed, embracing first her son, then Linda. As she’d expected, the woman’s eyes watched her with interest, but not in the upsetting, analytical way she was used to. Linda was already starting to like her.
“Mom, this is Linda Coriola. She is…”
“I know who you are, dear,” the woman interrupted. “I recognized you right away, I saw your picture in the newspaper a while back. I can see you’re a real beauty!”
“Thank you very much, Mrs. Leon,” Linda replied smiling. “It’s a pleasure meeting you!”
“Call me Chantalle, please, darling. Come on in!”
Inside was cool and a sweet light revealed a somewhat exotic décor. The furniture, the rugs and drapes were old fashioned, but of an excellent taste and quality, just like the traditional chandeliers hanging from the ceiling. Paintings and all sorts of decorative objects were strategically placed. Linda was sure Chantalle - perhaps her sister too - had manufactured them.
Chantalle led the coupleto the living room. In front of a window – beyond which laid their vast botanical garden – were two small sofas, a square table between them. This corner seemed to Linda like a piece of Heaven.
Chantalle urged them to have a seat, then brought some strawberry juice made by her.
“I’ve never tasted something so delicious,” said Linda sincerely.
“Thank you, darling,” replied the woman, sitting on the other sofa, facing them. “We have a small strawberry plantation. There’s nothing like home-cooked food. Sophie should soon finish preparing lunch. She’ll be joining us in just a moment. Until then, tell me about yourselves. I understand you’ve met at the clinic.”
Linda glanced at Gerard, who buried his nose in the juice glass.
“Yes,” she answered. “I have been making donations there for a while. Since I live in London now, I want to get involved more I try to help in any way I can curing or at least comforting those poor children.”
Chantalle watched her for a moment, then said:
“You have a kind, generous soul. Few rich people think to give away even a penny of their fortune, not to mention do all the good you are doing.”
Linda laughed softly, tracing the floral pattern on the glass with her finger.
“I’m not that rich, Mrs. Leon –Chantalle,” she corrected. “I had the luck to be born in a family with a good financial status and the privilege – which few have – to follow my inclination toward sculpture. Art pays pretty well too.”
“Everywhere you see so-calledartistswithout any talent who are starving. If you’re paid well, it means you got some real talent there. Besides, I also saw in the newspaper some photos of your sculptures. You have something… special, a style wearing your fingerprint. It’s no wonder my boy has fallen for you.”
Linda, who was just sipping some juice, choked and coughed noisily, splattering droplets of juice and panic.
Gerard laughed, gently patting her back.
“Mom, please, stop it! Linda is not used to your… direct approach. Please excuse my mother. She’s used to telling things straight forward and sometimes that’s bothersome.”
“Why should she be bothered, dear?” Chantalle was scandalized. “Or don’t you love my son?”
Linda, who had barely managed to recover her breath just to lose it again groping for a non-incriminating answer, was saved by Sophie, who appeared in the doorway.
Gerard stood and embraced her tightly, exclaiming:
“Auntie, you finally bless us with your presence! Let me introduce someone. Linda, this is my aunt Sophie.”
Linda got to her feet to shake the woman’s hand. She was asuppler brown-haired version of Chantalle’s, wearing a pink apron tied around her waist.
“It’s so good to meet you, Mrs. Sophie. I’m Linda Coriola.”
Sophie took her hands in hers, analyzing her from over the top of her glasses.
“You seem familiar, dear.”
“She’s the sculptress we saw in the paper,” Chantalle intervened. “Don’t you remember admiring one of her statues? The one you said that resembled Gerard.”
“It’s a representation of Apollo,” Linda clarified.
“Oh, I remember now,” Sophie said and her face lit up even more. “I’m so happy to meet you, dear. Welcome to our humble home. But how come you know our boy?”
“She’s his girlfriend,” Chantalle clarified again, before Linda can say a word. “Will you bring that food this year or shall I come and help?”
“No need, I’ll serve lunch right away,” answered Sophie, her hands on the youths’ shoulders, then hurried back to the kitchen.
“An Apollo who looks like me?” Gerard asked, raising an eyebrow.
Linda sighed and shook her head, whispering:
“Not a chance. I can’t wait to see the exhibit.”
The meal was excellent, the food simple butvery tasty: chicken soup, juicy steak with mashed potatoes and a delicious strawberry pie.
Conversation flowed smoothly. Linda discovered she liked very much the two women, who were energetic, funny, completely indiscrete and always making spicy comments.
Sophie and her husband hadn’t had children because of her incurable sterility. So the woman looked at Gerard asif he was her own son. He seemed perfectly happy to have two mothers: a biological one and a surrogate one, being loved and spoiled by both of them. The women overwhelmed him with questions regarding his work, as well as his personal life.
“Did you finish developing that snake venom treatment?” his mother asked.
“More or less.I’ve already obtained promising results and I have hopes for another treatment. Next week, Linda and I leave for Romania.”
Three pairs of big eyes stared at him in amazement. Two voices exclaimed simultaneously:
“We?” asked a third voice, accentuating the word. No one took any notice.
“Yep,” he went on. “Remember Jean-Paul Battiste, dad’s friend? He discovered a cure for cancer , made from a plant. We’ll exchange notes. Problem is he lives in Romania and he can’t come here. So I’m going there and I’m taking Linda with me,” he said, putting a hand around her shoulders.
She felt as though steam wasready to come out of her ears.
“We haven’t settled this yet,” she told himon a caustic tone, emphasizing every word.
“Well, it was as good as settled,” he replied jovially. “Tomorrow I’ll make airport reservations.”
Under the curious gazes of the two women, Linda decided it was best to continue her discussion with Gerard in private. She took a deep breath and forced down some more juice.
“Do you want anything else, darlings?” asked Sophie.
When everybody declined graciously praising the food, she rose to clear the table.
“I’ll do it,” said Chantalle, but before she got to her feet, Gerard stood.
“Let me help, auntie, you know how I like to stick my nose in kitchen business. And I recall you saying something about a broken door-knob.”
“Oh, yes,” his motheranswered. “It’s true, darling. The back door knob is broken. Maybe you wanna take a look at it.”
Aunt and nephewleft loaded with dishes, leaving Chantalle and Linda alone.
“It’s hard without a man in the house,” remarked the older woman. “Seems to me I’ve read something about you having been married?”
“Yes, Iwas. I divorced almost a year ago.”
Generally, indiscretion got on Linda’s nerves. However, she’d already come to respect the woman in front of her and she realized the questions didn’t come from vulgar curiosity, but from the interest a mother has for her son’s lover.
“We weren’t compatible,” she finally replied. ”He was too jealous, possessive, I lacked patience… I think the most important thing was that we didn’t really love each other.”
Chantalle linked her handson the table, a gesture habitual for her son as well.
“You’re right. Love is the most important thing in a relationship. It’s essential. All the others are auxiliaries. And now you fear marriage, don’t you?”
Linda measured her words carefully.
“No, I don’t. Nonetheless, I often wonder if it could be that I’m just not made for this kind of commitment.”
“When you love someone, this kind of commitment becomes your biggest wish. To be always with the loved one, to live the present, to build a future together and forget the past. Gerard loves you.”
Sheopened her mouth to say something, but Chantalle went on:
“I can see you love him too. Don’t denyit. Don’t break his heart because of some ideas without foundation.”
Linda gazedthrough the window, disconcerted by the woman’s insight and by the simple matter in which she’d put a problem that seemed so complicated to her own mind.
“Will you follow me, please? I’d like to give you something.”
She led herin a sort of dimly-lit hallway, where Linda saw two bookcases loaded with books. From one of the shelves, Chantalle revealed a tiny square box, antique-looking, covered in an ivory-colored textile material. At a closer glance, it seemed hand-knitted.
“This little box is part of mydowry,” the woman said then opened it. Inside was a thin silver necklace, seemingly crafted by a skilful spider. On the silver thread dangled a charm – a white immaculate pearl, encrusted in a simple silver half-moon.
“It isgorgeous,” whispered Linda, impressed both by the jewel’s beauty, as well as by the age and history this shiny little pearl was carrying.
Chantalle handed her the necklace.
“It’s a present for you. I hadn’t decided if I was gonna give it to your or not,” she confessed laughing softly. “I waited to see if I liked you.”
Linda opened her mouth,an automatic protest stopping on her lips when she remembered Gerard’s words. She took the necklace with gentleness and reverence, enclosing it in her hand.
“Thank you very much, Chantalle. It’s the most precious gift I have ever received. I feel extremely honored to accept it.”
“It has a suave, delicate beauty, but strong in the same time, just like you. Turn around, let me put it on,” she urged, then she stood on her tiptoes to lock the necklace around Linda’s neck.
Seized by a strange, unknown emotion, shetook Chantalle’s hands in hers. Smiling, she told her:
“Thank you again, for the gift and for your trust. You have a wonderful son. Now I can see from where he’s got all his qualities.”
Chantalle squeezed her hands, saying:
“Pearls and silver represent protection and balance. They suit you. Now, let’s go see what the others are up to.”
It was almost six in the afternoon when they said theirgoodbyes from the two women, with lots of hugs and promises they would be back soon to visit.
Gerard knew she was pissed, and gave her credit for waitinguntil they left the driveway to vent her anger.
“We are going to Romania?”
Heraised his eyebrows – innocence personified.
“I asked you, don’t you remember?”
“I remember perfectly. I said I’ll think about it.”
“Which is almost equivalent with an affirmative answer.”
Before she could say anything else, he looked at her, all big eyes and an innocent-looking smile.
“Come on, you know you want to go. Who doesn’t want to goto Romania, especially in Transylvania, the enigmatic and exotic territory in the heart of the Carpathians?” he asked theatrically.
As he hoped,she sighed and started laughing, disarmed.
“I can’t believe this! Is there a woman in the world who can resist you?”
“I don’t know, but I doubt that,” he replied, grinning smugly. “In any case, I’m not interested in anybody but you. So, tomorrow I can reserve the plane tickets, right?”
“Fine,”she consented grudgingly. “So we go by plane. And after that what? Will your friend wait for us at the airport?”
“No. The airport is in Bucharest, which is the capitalof Romania. Jean-Paul lives in another city called Cluj-Napoca. I thought we could rent a car and drive there. It’s only a few hours. Besides, we have the chance to admire the scenery. I hear this country has splendid landscapes.”
“Tobe honest, you made me curious. Perhaps it’s indeed going to be an interesting experience.”
“I’m sure of that. I could tell you this city is right in the heart of Transylvania. Maybe we’ll encounter a creature of the night,” he growled with a Dracula accent, then burst out laughing, seeing her cautious expression.
“Don’t worry, beautiful. I’ll be there to protect you from everything. We can even take some silver stakes with us if you like.”
She smiled but beforeshe could reply, he said:
“Tell me about that statue that looks like me.”
Linda bit her lower lip in an attempt to control her laughter.
“You have an ego the size of Russia, haven’t you? There’s nothing to tell, it’s just a coincidence. I sculpted that statue of Apollo longbefore I met you. Granted, there’s a resemblance with your features.”
“You know I don’t believe in coincidence, right?”
“Then how do you explain this?”
“Well, analyzing things logically, I assume you sculpted that statue from your imagination, inspired by a fantasy man. Correct?”
“Sort of,” she consented suspiciously.
“And after that, you’ve met me. This means I am, literally, the man of your dreams,” he rationalized with faked soberness. “So it’s clearly we were predestined to meet and fall in love with each other.”
For a few moments she remained speechless, her mouth opened without uttering a sound. Then, massaging her forehead, she slowly shook her head and began laughing.
“You are the most arrogant man I have evercome across in my life.”
Hegrinned, saying nothing.
They sketched a plan for the few daysduring which they were supposed to be gone, and for the arrangements each had to make. Linda decided asking Mrs. Adams to take Pirata home with her during those three days.
“Breaks my heart to leave himalone, we’ve never been apart,” she complained. “What if he becomes depressed and thinks I won’t come back?”
“Baby, as long as he’ll have food, toys and TV, he’s gonna be dandy. Besides, you told me Mrs. Adams adores him and vice-versa.”
“That’s right,” she admitted, her face lightening a bit. “In the beginning I was a bit jealous on her and all the affection proofs my cat was giving her. Now I’m glad that… Where are we going?” she asked curiously, noticing they’d reached the city, but he was heading the car to a direction other than her house.
“To my apartment,”he replied. “Aren’t you curious to see where I live?”
“Yes, I am. As a matter of fact, I was wondering when youplanned to invite me.”
His apartment was situated in the center of London, relatively near Francesco’s gallery. They navigated the crowded streets until they reached the neighborhood of modern buildings. Nearby was an underground garage. Gerard made a hand gesture toward the two guards then parked the car. He opened Linda’s door and helped her get out. Hand in hand, they walked to the garage’s exit then he guided her to a gravel-paved path. This led to the entrance of the coquettish building, painted cream, with four levels and multi-colored flowerpots beaming at every window.
“There are only a few small apartments in this building and one of them is mine,” he explained.
His apartment was located on the second floor, so they took the stairs. He unlocked the door and urged her inside, saying:
“La mia casa è la tua casa!”
Linda turned to him, shocked, hopefully impressedby the correct pronunciation and accent.
“Don’t tell me you can speak Italian!”
He laughed softly looking at his shoes, then confessed:
“No, actually I learned only a few lines, just to impress you.”
“You succeeded,” she congratulated him as they went inside.
The apartment was indeed small, buthe liked it that way. It was extremely comfortable and nicely furnished. A big hallway split in three directions: to the left was the kitchen, to the right his single roomy bedroom and straight ahead was the living room.
To simplify matters and suit his own taste, he’d ordered the furniture, drapes, even the floorboards to be done in shades of brown, a blend of dark walnut and sweet , honey-like tones.
What caught Linda’sattention and made her let out a gasp of pleasure or amazement was the huge aquarium. It was placed along one entire wall, facing the ample living-room window.
“Oh,my! They are gorgeous!” she exclaimed, approaching the glass beyond which dozens of multi-colored minuscule fish undulated in the water, among decorations that simulated their natural habitat. Some were more energetic, others lazier, but they all seemed to move in a dance of their own, by a choreography known only by them, intertwining their tiny colored bodies through the rocks and plants artistically arranged for their delight.
He came up behind her and tenderly embraced her, kissing her bare shoulder.
“You like them?”
“They are wonderful! I would like some of these, but I think Pirata would go mad with frustration he couldn’t catch them and the fish would die of stress,” she joked. “I could sit watching them for hours, it’s so relaxing… It’s like I’m transported in their fluid little world, with no worries.”
Hesmiled and took a box from a shelf.
“Look,this is their food. Take a handful and spread it on top.”
“It looks disgusting!”
“Trust me, they love it.”
Lindatook a handful from the granulated mixture and gently sprinkled it in the aquarium, standing on tiptoes to reach the high edge.
Then she started laughing when all the small fish rushed to the surface,greedily devouring the tiny particles.
“Told you. What do you wanna drink?”
“What have you got?”
“Soda, juice, red wine, white wine, beer and coffee,” he enumerated, counting on his fingers.
“I almost never drink coffee. Just today I had to make an exception for an emergency situation”, she said in playful reproach. “Some juice, please.”
“Coming right up. Make yourself at home,” he urged. “The couch is over there, the remote must be around too.”
“I’ll be fine, don’t worry.”
He left her sitting on his massive couch - typically masculine, in front of his massive TV - typically masculine. She found the remote under one of the couch’s cushions and began pressing buttons.
He broughtthe drinks – orange juice for her and a beer for him – and sat next to her.
“Who’s gonna feed yourfish while we’re gone?”
“Well, I get alongwith all my neighbors, I’d trust any one of them. Still, I think I’ll ask Danielle. She’s on top of me,” he explained, indicating the ceiling. “She’s an exotic dancer.”
“What?” sheasked, looking ready to choke for the second time that day.
“Yeah, she’s a nice girl. We’re friends and nothing more,” he accentuated when he saw her dark expression.
Then he noticed the pearl-necklace around her neck and smiled.
“Gift from mother? It means she liked you very much if she gave you this. It was her biggest treasure, inherited from grandma. It’s very old.”
“I felt a bit embarrassed. I can’t believe she gave me something so important to her. But you’re wrong. You are her biggest treasure,” Linda told him.
“True. Besides aunt Sophie, I’m all she has in this world. They both adore me and I them.”
“I can see you are used to women’s adoration,” she teased. “And now shut up, I wanna watch the show. It’s one of my favorites.”
“What’s this?” he asked looking at the screen.
“Dynamo, magician impossible. This guy fascinates me. He is not like other illusionists. In fact, I don’t think you could actually call him anillusionist, because I don’t think levitations and other things he does have anything to do with illusion. I probably speak unknowingly, but I think I can say one thing with a fair degree of certainness.”
He watchedDynamo slowly coming off the ground, rising in front of an entire crowd next to a huge statue of Jesus.
“I don’t think he’s come to having the abilities he has by practicing yoga. Some advanced masters reach the levitation stage after long periods of intensive training. I don’t think that’s his case though. And I don’t think him to be a fakir either.”
“Why do you say that?” he asked, intrigued by the topic.
“I’ve read somewhere he suffers from a terrible disease, Crohn’s disease. If he’d practiced yoga on a high level, he would’ve been long cured. Be as it may, I’m telling you, the guy is not a regular person. He has some special abilities and qualities…”
“Do you wannasit here all night so you can extol this Dynamo dude? I’m beginning to become jealous.”
“Why?” she repliedserenely, entering his game. “If Dynamo comes from Dynamite, the guy must be dynamite in bed! Do you realize? He must be able to levitate a woman using only his…”
“You want levitation?” he interrupted slyly, his tone charged with amused threat. “I’ll show you right away how it’s done.”
So saying, he lifted hereffortlessly off the couch in a smooth fluid motion, placing her on his lap. She straddled him, his thighs hidden under her large skirt-dress. He drew her to him, as close as he could, until he felt almost every inch of her body pressed to his. Then he kissed her ardently, moving his hands on her soft skin. He detached the pins from her hair, sliding his fingers through that golden mass flowing down her back.
He kissed her neck, her shoulders, then his lips went lower and lower. Hetugged down her dress straps, burying his face in her cleavage, cupping her breasts, increasingly aroused by her every gasp and moan.
Sheresponded to his touch with a sensuality that he knew intuitively had remained hidden until then, undiscovered in the depth of her being. She rose over him, kissing his every feature. He let her have control, let the passion take him, throwing him in the vertigo of rapture. She grazed her teeth over his throat and a rough moan escaped his lips. Encouraged, she stroked his strong torso, then pulled his T-shirt over his head and threw it on the floor.
When he felt her hottongue over his chest, tasting his nipples, any shadow of control left him. He unfastened his jeans and lowered them slightly. Her eyes shone glassy with desire as he pulled her closer, his fingers digging in her thighs, pressing down, while his hips pushed up, higher, deeper, in the rhythm of their breaths.
There was nothing in the universe but the smooth motions of the two lovers, lost in each other, consumed by the intensity of their feelings.
Afterthe deluge of their passion was temporarily satiated, a euphoric calmness descended upon them. She collapsed on his chest, still holding him tight between her warm thighs.
“Ti voglio bene, amore mio!” he whispered, his lips touching the delicate lobe of her ear. It meantI love you. He wanted to make memorable the first time he said those words to her.
He felt her stop breathing for a moment.The significance of this statement in the melodious sound of her maternal language must have triggered in her soul a very powerful emotion. He wondered if she’d recognized it as being complete happiness.
She must have, because he knew she was serious when she whispered back:
“Anch’io ti amo, mio caro!”
She embraced him tighter than she’d ever had before.
Outside darkness had fallen. Only the inconstant TV light and the fairy-like multi-colored lights of the aquarium revealed the two silhouettes embraced on the couch.
Eventually, Linda raised herhead from his shoulder.
“Baby, you have to take me home. Pirata is alone, I can’t leave him like that. I’m going to the bathroom.”
“It’s in the bedroom, on the left,” he mumbled, sunk into a state of euphoric relaxation, then sighed and got up.
He felt invincible, as thoughnothing could shadow his happiness. Linda had told him she loved him. He knew she meant it. He gathered his T-shirt from the floor and pulled it on.
WhenLinda returned, she grabbed her bag and turned off the TV, then he locked the door behind them.
On the way to her house, driving on the illuminated crowded streets, they talked about various things, especially regarding the trip they were going to make together. At one point, he asked:
“You said the day aftertomorrow is your art exhibit?”
“Yes. Actually, it’s not only my exhibit. There will be the works of other artists too.”
“But you’re the best and the most well-known, right?”
She laughed, pinning her hair up.
“If you wanna put it like that. Sort of.”
“Do I have to wear a suit?” he complained in a martyr tone.
“If you want Francesco to let you in, yes. Francesco is the gallery’s owner, and a perfect gentleman who never breaches etiquette. I took him the sculpture of your hands, by the way. He was thrilled.”
He smiled, glancing at her.
“Of course. If it was made by you. No matter how banal the model, it’s still a masterpiece.”
“You, banal? Not in a thousand years and you know it!” she exclaimed teasingly.
Hestopped the car in front of her gate, then got out to open her door.
Sheentered the code of the alarm system and the gate opened. She turned to him.
“Won’t you stay here?”
“Do you want me to stay?”
“Yes,” she admitted, causing hisheart to throb with the pleasure and satisfaction of knowing she needed him, that she wanted him close.
He wrappedhis arms around her, kissing her softly and stroking her cheek.
“We became addicted to each other in a very short time,” he remarked. “Does it scare you?”
“A little. Doesn’t it scare you?”
“No. On the contrary, it’s the most extraordinary thing I’ve ever felt for a woman,” he confessed, his eyes holding hers. ”I’m sorry, my love, but I think I’d better go home. Tomorrow I’m gonna wake up very early. I have a hundred problems to solve so I can arrange our trip. I don’t want you to feel obliged to wake up with the sunrise.”
She sighed resignedly and said smiling:
“In any case, I wouldn’t want you to be next to me if I ever have to wake up with the sunrise. Trust me, it wouldn’t be a pleasant experience for any of us.”
He laughed softly andkissed her again, embracing her tightly.
“Go. When I’ll see you get inside, I’ll leave too. Good night, baby!”
She slid through the gates, resetting the alarm code, then walked along the driveway until she reached the house. At the front door she turned. He was still in front of the gates, watching her, leaning on the thick bars. Linda waved to him and he called:
“I love you!”
As though still unused to this declaration, she hesitated a moment. Then she traced an imaginary heart in the air with her index fingers.
He smiled back at her, thoughtfully, wondering when she’ll let herself trust him and be comfortable with displaying her love.
The next day went by quickly for both of them.Linda arranged for Mrs. Adams to take Pirata while she was away. After that, she helped the old housekeeper to clean the house. She personally cleaned up her workshop, sharpening and organizing her tools. In the afternoon, when the woman had left, Linda prepared a magnificent dinner for her and Gerard. He’d called during the day to let her know he had reserved plane tickets for Monday. He’d promised at seven o’clock he’ll be present for dinner.
Shecarefully chose her outfit. She put on a long strapless dress, pink and diaphanous, with floral prints. Because she’d noticed Gerard loved to comb his fingers through her hair, she brushed it, letting it free to fall in soft, shiny waves on her back.
Gerard arrived at a quarter to seven.He was unshaven and wore a white shirt, clean but extremely wrinkled. Looking at him, she marveled at the effect the man had on her. Was she so blinded by love that she thought he looked gorgeous even dressed far from presentable and having dark circles of fatigue under his eyes?
When he enveloped her in his arms, kissingher deeply, with the passion which seemed to spring straight from his soul, the reason she loved him was very clear.
“My love, the air conditioning in my office has broken, that’s why I’m all sweaty and rumpled. I missed you like crazy,” he added, kissing her again.
“Me too.I’ve made a delicious dinner. I hope you like boeuf salad and steak. This time I made dessert too.”
“Yogurt and sour cherries pie, my special recipe. You’ll like it,” she assured him.
“Smells divine, baby,”he replied, sniffing the air. “But I’m begging you, can I take a shower first? I need to get out of these clothes.”
“Of course, go upstairs. In the meantime I’ll set the table.”
“Don’t you wanna come with me?” he suggested playfully.
She stepped back makinga pirouette, allowing him to admire her dress.
“I went to so much trouble so I’dlook good for you and you already want me to take off my clothes? You didn’t even notice my new dress,” she pouted.
“Of course I’ve noticed it, baby, it’s lovely. Anyway, you look best in Eve’s outfit, in my arms.”
He winked, thenclimbed the stairs to the bedroom.
Smiling widely – it seemed it was all she could do lately – Linda set the big guests table in the dining room, using the fine porcelain tableware and silver cutlery.
Seated on a chair at the top of the table, Pirata was carefully supervising his mistress’ preparations.
Gerarddescended, trailing a fresh scent of soap. When Linda turned around, she saw her lover was wearing only a towel around his hips. Her jaw almost dropped. He reacted the same looking at the festive décor, then down at himself and his attire, completely inadequate for the occasion.
They both burst out laughing at the same time. When their laughter subsided, he took her in his arms saying:
“I’m so sorry, my love, you’ve worked so hard for this dinner and I ruined everything. I thought we were gonna eat in the kitchen. I wasn’t expecting anything formal. Are we celebrating something?”
She kissed his naked chest, which was still damp.
“Just the fact that we’re together. Don’t be sorry, you don’t have anything to apologize for.”
He gesticulated towardthe festive-looking table.
“How can I not apologize? Everything is perfect except me.”
Shesmiled, giving him a long lingering kiss.
“You’re the only perfect thing,amore mio!Let’s eat. Pirata, make room for the gentleman,” she ordered the cat who, obedient, moved on another chair.
Dinner was apleasant, if strange experience. She’d never had an almost naked gorgeous man sitting at her table. She couldn’t say she disliked it, not even close. She would have been happy to admire and enjoy his perfect body every day of her life.
They recounted toone another the day’s events, making plans for the next day.
“What time do we need to be at the gallery?” he asked.
“At six in the evening is the official opening.”
“And what exactly do we have to do at such an event?”
“Not much. Smile, talk to people… That’s about it.”
Shetook a sip of the red wine she’d specially bought for this occasion.
“It’s gonnabe an interesting experience to see my star in action,” he remarked grinning.
After dinner, she freshened their drinks and they went outside, on the terrace. They laid on the lounge chairs, illuminated by the dwarves’ and elves’ torches, admiring the few stars sprinkled here and there in the dark abyss above.
He put his glass on the small table placed between the lounge chairs, then rose and took off the towel from around his hips. Linda remained with her glass to her mouth, watching him motionless, while electric waves of desire were stirring her entire being.
He took the glass from her hand, helping her to her feet.
“I wanna test this pool of yours. It’s almost as tempting as the owner,” he told her as he undressed her.
Thethin strapless dress slid easily down her body and she was left in a minuscule lacy thong. In two movements, Gerard left her without even that insignificant garment.
Wordless, theysank into the cool water. It made a steamy contrast with their hot bodies.
“I didn’t think we could… make love in the pool,” she gasped, abandoning herself to his relentless kisses and caresses.
“Every day I’m going toteach you a new way to make love. We’re gonna learn together,” he told her, holding her tight, sinking deep into the water and into her hot body.
Gerard awoke before she did. Gathering his wrinkled clothes from the bathroom, he dressed quietly, consoling himself by thinking he’d get home fast and change into clean clothes.
“Mon Dieu, how beautiful she is,”he thought, while sitting on the edge of the bed, watching his lover sleep. He almost couldn’t believe this divine creature was his. At least for now. The thought he could lose her drove him to despair, to fear – a feeling he didn’t remember to have ever experienced.
He kissed her lightlythen headed to the door. Linda had given him the alarm code, so there was no need to disturb her for anything.
He stopped by his apartment, took a quick shower, after which he dressed into a blue shirt and jeans. He fed his fish, watching them devouring their granulated food with greedy enthusiasm. He had to promise Danielle a special present from Romania, a bribe in exchange for her services as a fish-sitter while he was gone. The plane tickets were round-trip type, at a three days interval. They had to finish in that frame of time, solve all the problems he had with Jean-Paul in those three days. Two of them included the trip itself and were going to be spent more on the road.
He consulted his wardrobe to pick an adequate outfit for the upcoming night’s event. He chose a dark blue suit, a white shirt and grey tie. He checked to seeif the clothes were well-pressed, then he left for the clinic.
* * *
Linda awoke in a state of anxiety whose cause she couldn’t localize. She remembered the gallery’s opening was at six o’clock that evening. Groaning, she buried her head back under the pillow. Although she wasn’t a novice in the art world, such events made her nervous without a specific reason. She was by no means a sociable person. The thought of spending a few hours into a crowd of people who were staring at her sculptures making small-talk depressed her.
Gerard had promised he’d pick herup at five, so they wouldn’t be delayed by the London traffic. She looked at the clock. It was almost eleven, which meant she had six hours of waiting. She took a long hot shower, then she called Giovanni and talked to him for almost half an hour, without any regard for the phone bill.
She told him about Gerard, leaving her brother more than thrilled becausehis sister finally hada guy.
She thought aboutcalling her father, but the perspective of exchanging giggles with the beautiful and completely imbecile Ariadna discouraged her. Same story with Giovanna and her husband - young, handsome, smart as a decorative vase.
After eating, she dressed casually and went shopping. There was nothing more stress-releasing than a good shopping session and shop-browsing.
At five o’clock when Gerard came to pick her up, she hadn’t finished doing her makeup. She wore a simple black dress that reached her knees, with a discreet décolletage. Her hair was up into a French twist, as simple and elegant as her whole attire. Between her breasts laid the necklace Chantalle had given her. As a final touch, she’d added a pair of pearl earrings.
He called out, then climbed the stairs to the bedroom, whistling admiringly at her sight.
“You look fabulous, baby.”
He kissed her freshly rouged lips, getting them both smudged with peach-colored lipstick.