Authors: Linda Andrews
She'll risk everything to stay in the magical town of Amores. He'll do anything to stop her from gambling with their future.
The Love Lottery is a short story of 7,500 words.
Edited by Elizabeth Burton
The Love Lottery
Copyright © 2012 by Linda Andrews
Published by LandNa Publishing
Edited by Elizabath Burton, Zumaya Publications
Cover Design © Linda Andrews
Photo by Rostislav Glinsky, Dmtryo Konstantynov
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This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents are products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously and are not to be construed as real. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, organizations, or persons, living or dead, is completely coincidental.
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The Love Lottery
"I would like to say something in my defense." Lia Lombard pushed off the gleaming oak bench and stepped onto the mosaic floor in front of the city council table. Stopping four feet away from the mayor, she locked her trembling knees. She tried to swallow, but her tongue swelled like foam in her mouth. Oh, for a drink of water, just a sip.
She glanced out the window. Rain pattered gently against the stained glass depicting Psyche leaning over a sleeping Cupid. Lia's leg jumped. The door was only ten feet behind her. She could leave, run out of theConsiglio Comunale'schambers, tilt her face up and let the frigid rain slide down her parched throat.
Her sister Alessa eased next to her, brushing her shoulder despite the open space. Alessa’s sneakers squeaked on the tile, smearing mud on the mosaic’s sky. She tucked her hands in her rain-spotted jeans and offered Lia a stiff smile.
Lia raised her chin. She couldn't run away, and refused to show any weakness in front of Amores's governing council. Her life depended on it.
"We are not a jury,orfana."SindacoMezzerti nodded to the four members on his right then the other four members of the council on his left. He rested his hands on the long marble table in front of him before leaning back on his elevated marble throne.
Liar! Lia bit her lip to stop the accusation from spilling out. They were judging her. In moments, they would pass sentence. Life as she knew it would end. All because she had nobloodties to the village.
Inhaling a shaky breath, she eased forward over the tiles depicting the green mountains and stopped square on the palace that had become Psyche's home.
Amores was her home. Her adopted sister, the only family she'd ever known, lived here. Her adoptive parents were buried under the village. But these people would send her away, cast her out. She saw it in their raised chins. Their shimmering white togas with jewel-toned trim were shackles to the past, to tradition—one she didn't share by birthright, by blood. They'd made that clear by calling herorfanainstead of by her name. They all knew her name. The only one she'd ever had.
These nine men and women knew her. Each and every one of them had taught her at various times during her schooling. She focused on the man in the center, watched as he adjusted the laurel wreath on his bald head. Mayor Mezzerti was currently teaching her pasta-making at Amores'sScuola secondaria di secondo grado.
But the words—the pleas—lodged in her throat, refusing to budge. Gods, please help me.
"My sister's name is Lia." Alessa laced her fingers through Lia's and squeezed gently. Her grasp was warm and comforting, as it had been these last ten years since Mama and Papa died. "Lia Lombard. Notorfana."
Under Lia's feet, the mosaic changed. Instead of blue sky, the image shifted into a village. It wavered for a moment then disappeared under a wave of blue and gold. She blinked; two hot tears streaked down her cheeks. The mass of fluttering blue curved into a smiling drama mask before evolving into a single large butterfly.
Lia's heart lifted into her mouth. Cupid's wife Psyche had been given butterfly wings when she'd turned immortal. Surely, this was a sign the gods wanted her to stay in Amores.
Her attention flew to the faces of the council. Masks of grim determination met her eyes.
With a gasp, she stepped onto the gold spot on the butterfly's wing. Had they not seen the omen? Or had they lived with magic so long they no longer paid it any heed?
SindacoMezzerti cleared his throat and adjusted the silver frames of his readers. Papyrus rustled as he unrolled the scroll in front of him.
"That is precisely why theConsiglio Comunalehas convened, Vestal Alessa. She's not your sister. Your parents never finalized the adoption."
A muscle flexed in Alessa's jaw before she released Lia's hand and strode forward. Her fist thumped the marble table, and she leaned forward, practically sticking her nose in the mayor's face.
"She is in all the ways that matter. If we are truly the disciples of Cupid then the people who fill our heart are family."
Blood will tell. Lia wrapped her arms around her waist. If they had shared a parent, she would be the lion prowling the council's white marble den. She would be defending her right to stay in the magical village instead of leaving the fight to her sister.
Cupid shimmered in the green glass arch behind the council. With a wink, he slipped a grape leaf over his privates then beckoned to his wife. Psyche's image flashed in and out of the colored windows punched in the frescoed walls before she collapsed into her husband's embrace. Lia swiped at her tears and averted her eyes as the two fogged the pane with their kiss.
SindacoMezzerti plucked the spectacles off his nose and polished the lenses on the hem of his silk toga.
"As a teacher of the bow's arts, I would think you would know that Amores is a testament to romantic love, not familial affection."
Alessa set her fists on her blue-jean-clad hips. The quiver of arrows on her back rattled and tugged up the edges of her crimson Cupid Rock's tee-shirt.
"Amores's charter is quite clear on the matter." On the mayor's left,SignoraGrimor fiddled with the emerald brooch holding the coarse cotton toga over her tiny breasts before opening her arm to encompass the rest of the comunale. "We are here to ensure that all living things continue to fall in love and mate to keep the Earth young. Your devotion, while a favorable reflection upon your untapped maternal instincts, is not covered in the original charter. If you were mated, reproducing as the gods intended…"
Lia's mouth opened. How dared they talk to Alessa that way! Just because she was thirty and unwed didn't make her less of a citizen.
"I'm sorry, but…"
In the window behind the council's head, Cupid and Psyche turned the glass a flaming red. The goddess flipped her flowing robe over her bare shoulder, stomped her foot and pointed at the council. Cupid nodded and tapped his index finger against his chin.
As if Lia hadn't spoken, Alessa shoved the scroll off the table into the mayor's lap.
"Zephyrus brought Lia to us, to Amores, during the fall. No outsider has ever found us in any month besides February!"
Lia clamped her lips together to keep from laughing as the mayor juggled the unrolling scroll. In the window, Psyche sniffed, but her lips twitched. Cupid fluttered his wings then pulled a red-and-black clay urn from behind his back.
Lia felt her heart squeeze in her chest. Not that urn!
The goddess snapped her fingers, and a slip of parchment with Lia's name appeared. With a smile, she dropped it into the urn. Immediately, hearts blossomed out of the jar's mouth.
Oh, gods, no! Not the Love Lottery! Was she that desperate to stay in Amores?
Psyche crossed her arms over her chest and arched an eyebrow at Lia. Dropping the urn, Cupid grabbed a red heart and stretched it to the size of his face.
But it wasn't his face staring back at Lia. It was Dante's. Heat roiled through her, leaving her insides molten. She wiped her damp hands on her cooking school uniform. She had to buy enough time for Dante to return home, to see that she'd grown up.
To fall in love with her.
With a nod, Cupid and Psyche disappeared, leaving the pane of green glass empty.
Fixated on the Council, Alessa thumped the tabletop again. The mayor's readers inched closer to the edge of the table.
"Lia's parents died in an explosion, yet their infant child survived without a scratch; and the West Wind brought her here, just like he carried Psyche to Cupid."
SindacoMezzerti shoved the scroll back onto the table, rescued his glasses and plopped them on his nose.
"Surely, you do not think Lia is the incarnation of Psyche?"
A blue butterfly fluttered into the room. Good gods, with this many signs how could the council not see one of them?
"If I may!" Lia's shout echoed off the marble walls, and she flinched. Alessa straightened, her fist raised at her side.
TheConsiglio Comunalesnapped their attention to her.
Footsteps whispered over the tile behind Lia, but she didn't turn. She had to do this. Now. The butterfly lit on her shoulder, giving her courage. This was her chance to stay in Amores. She just hoped Zephyrus blew Dante home soon.
"We all know that Psyche and Cupid walk among us still, so no one is suggesting I am she."
Alessa blinked then shook her head. For a moment, she stared at her fist then shook out her fingers and strode to Lia's side.
"Of course not. But this is Lia's home—the only one she's had for nineteen years. She's as much a part of Amores as the descendants of the signers of the Cupid Charter. And while we are in the business of romantic love, does not the love of children come from that as well?"
SindacoMezzerti poked the scroll.
"The charter clearly states…"
Lia ground her teeth. Enough with the stupid charter.
"The charter states that all single female citizens can drop their name into Cupid and Psyche's urn on Valentine's Day. Since I am still a citizen of Amores until the end of term…" Forever, if I have my way. "…I will add my name to the Love Lottery."
A hiss sounded behind her. In front, the mayor jerked back in his seat.SignoraGrimor flicked her black braid over her shoulder and leaned toward the mayor.
"What!" Alessa clamped onto Lia's arm. "You don't—"
Lia ignored her sister and squared her shoulders.
"If the gods will it, I will find a mate tomorrow."
Pain lanced her chest. No, not a mate, if Dante had not returned from the outside. She crossed her fingers. Please, gods, have Dante return.
Signora Grimor nodded to the mayor before leaning forward in her chair.
"And if an eligible bachelor doesn't draw your name, will you leave the village without further appeals to the consiglio?"
"No!" Alessa groaned and tightened her grip on Lia's arm
"Si." Pain needled Lia's fingers. Setting her hand on her sister's, she tried to loosen the vise. The Love Lottery had to work. Cupid wouldn't have suggested it otherwise, wouldn't have shown her Dante's face.
Unless, Cupid was playing one of his tricks and wanted her cast out.
Lia slowly filled her lungs. If her name wasn't drawn then she'd find Dante on the outside. She had to find him.
The mayor grasped the scroll and began to roll it up.
"You know you will never be able to find Amores again? Never be able to return here or see any of us once you live among the regular humans?"
"Yes." Her voice broke, cracked the very heart in her chest. Please, gods, don't let this be a trick.
Mayor Mezzerti leaned to the left and right to consult with the other council members.
"The matter is closed, unless Alessa would like to add her name to the drawing."
Alessa groaned but shook her head. Strands of black hair escaped her bun.
"No? Very well. Lia Lombard will add her name to the urn tomorrow at sunrise. The gods’ will be done."
Tucking the scroll under his arm, the mayor jumped off his throne. TheConsiglio Comunalefollowed.
Lia turned toward the door. Dante! Her heart stuttered in her chest before battering against her ribcage. Had her thoughts conjured him? She blinked. No, they couldn't have. He was different from the last time she'd seen him.
Feet crossed at the ankles and hands stuffed into his trouser pockets, Dante Trancredo leaned against the walnut door frame. Light from the torches flicked over the dusky skin covering his high cheekbones and cleanshaven jaw. His black eyes flashed, when they swept over her. Heat bloomed under her skin. He looked better than the picture she kept under her pillow.
"Dante, you're back!" Alessa brushed Lia’s shoulder again as she rushed past.
Lia's sandals took root in the mosaic's grass, and she sucked on her bottom lip. Hope filled her stomach in a riot of wings. Was this what Cupid meant? Would Dante draw her name from the urn? Would he fall in love with her? Just because the citizens of Amores couldn't use Cupid's arrows on each other didn't mean the gods couldn't intervene.
"I had hoped to speak to theConsiglio Comunale, but I see that wasn't necessary." Dante shoved a lock of blond hair off his high forehead, before hugging Alessa and bussing her cheek. His gaze never left Lia's face.
She took one step then halted. Should she embrace him, kiss him? Did he know that she loved him? Had loved him since forever?
Releasing Alessa, he cocked his head and opened his arms to Lia.
Her feet bypassed her brain and ran her into his embrace. Although she was five-foot-ten, he had six inches on her. She pressed a kiss on his left cheek, savoring the rough skin under her lips. The citrusy scent of his cologne suffused her lungs. Gods, was this heaven or Hades?
He squeezed her for a moment before his big hands slipped down her spine and moved to hold her hips.
"You wish!" When her cheeks heated, she dipped her head. Please, gods, let my hair hide my blush.
Free of his embrace, she followed Alessa under the arched doorway into the courtyard.
Birds called as they flitted from olive tree to olive tree lining thepalazzo comunale. In the center of the square, white doves pecked at crumbs tourists scattered on the cobblestones. Red and pink heart-shaped balloons arched over the space. When the sun peeked out from behind a cloud, the wet terracotta walls sparkled as if they were infused with diamonds. Couples snapped pictures of the locals in their togas or lounged on the wrought iron tables of the Trancredo'spanetteria, sipping cappuccinos and feeding each other pastries.
Inhaling the heady scent of yeast, Lia plucked at her chef's attire. She could pass for either an outsider or a baker's icon.
Dante fell into step beside her as they crossed thepalazzo.
"Why would you allow yourself to be put in the Love Lottery?"
"Thank you." Alessa bookended her other side and waved her hands in agitation. "If you had just waited, theConsiglio Comunalewas this close to giving in. You could see it on their faces."
Lia shrugged and tucked her hands in the pockets of her white trousers. That's not what she’d seen on their faces. They wanted her out of Amores. Gods!SignoraGrimor probably thought a resident outsider messed with the Valentine's Day mojo. She certainly told everyone that Alessa’s spinster state was damaging the city’s reputation.
Maybe if Lia had known Dante was coming home… She inhaled the cool air between her teeth. What's done is done.
"We've been trying to get them to change their mind since I was sixteen, and they haven't stopped quoting that stupid charter. I couldn't take the chance they'd decide differently this time."
"But the lottery…" Alessa flapped her arms before slapping her thighs. The quiver of arrows on her back clattered. "Men as old as sixty are registered to draw. How would you feel being mated toSignoreSienestra?"
"Is thatlibertinostill alive?" Dante threw back his head and laughed. Muscle corded his neck. "The man must be eighty if he's a day. And he never misses a lottery."
What was so funny? Images of the hunchbacked old man filled her mind, and she shivered. His talon-like hands never missed an opportunity to pinch her bottom. Sometimes, she caught him licking his lips when he stared at her.
"The gods would not be so cruel."
Alessa snorted as they left thepalazzoand entered the narrow lane. On each side, buildings towered four stories overhead. Metal creaked as the day's washing dangled from a rack outside a third-story window.
"They’ve allowed those narrow-minded buffoons to sit on the council for the last twenty years. Playing with mortals is their favorite pastime."
Lia waved toSignoraRampa as she tossed open the green shudders of the florist’s shop.
"We needed a solution to end the stalemate. I came up with the best solution."
"Not the best." Dante held a low bough of a pine tree, allowing her to walk under it. "You could marry me and be done with theConsiglio Comunale."
Her muscles seized. Marry Dante! Her spirit soared to the heights of Olympus then plummeted to Hades. Her wish had come true and yet… The gods truly were cruel. Dante had said he'd come back to speak to the council. Only the council. He never said to marry her. This was all a rescue, again. Did he still look at her and see only the child being bullied, the little girl needing a protector?
She stumbled over an uneven cobblestone. There'd be no petitioning the council to remove her name. She'd have to go through with it and pray. Finding her footing, she whirled on him. Her finger drilled his shoulder.
"Back a day and you've already fallen into the rut of rescuing me."
Alessa opened her mouth, snapped it closed. She glanced from one to the other before shaking her head.
"I have to leave now, or I'll be late for class." After kissing Lia's cheek, she turned and fled down a side street.
Lia listened to her steps fade but kept her focus on the man in front of her. Her palms itched with the need to slap some sense into him, but her fingers itched to grab his jacket lapels, jerk him against her and kiss him into seeing her as a woman. The emotional tug-of-war left her paralyzed.
Dante's black eyes glittered and a muscle flexed in his jaw. His cheeks flushed before they resumed their normal color.
"I've been back twenty-five minutes." He snapped off each word. "My sister told me the meeting was tomorrow."
Sucking air through her teeth, she stepped backward. Sophia was in this, too? How could her best friend do this to her? She knew how Lia felt.
"I don't need you to rescue me." She planted her fists on her hips. "I've grown up during the last six years and can take care of myself."
His gaze dropped to her breasts, before they returned to her face.
"Is that why you broke your promise to never enter the lottery?"
Oh, gods! Her arms dropped limply to her sides. He remembered the promise.
The tower—her refuge from the heckling about her outsider heritage. And Dante—he'd been preparing to leave for culinary school in faraway Rome. She'd been thirteen, and so in love with him that she'd vowed to wait for his return. Pain squeezed her chest.
He hadn't laughed at her childishness. Instead, he'd promised to be there if she ever needed him.
But he hadn't shown up at the firstConsiglio Comunalemeeting or the ten between then and now. For the last six years, she’d dealt with this on her own.
Pain fractured her composure.
"I'm not the only one who broke a promise." Trapping the sob against her lips, she turned on her heel and ran.
Dante took two steps after her before stopping. Their reunion had not gone as planned. Not one little bit. Holding her in his arms had been all too brief. As for the kiss on her cheek, he wanted to taste her lips, drink from her soul.
Stuffing his hands in his pockets, he pivoted about and headed for his family’s bakery.
Had she really thought he'd deserted her? For the last six years, he’d spent every spare moment outside culinary school looking for any hint of her family. He'd only returned when he'd heard of theconsiglio comunale'sdecision to evict her from Amores. He'd hoped to persuade her to marry him and use the engagement period to woo her.
To make her stop seeing him as a brother.
For a moment there he'd thought…
He shook his head. That had just been wishful thinking on his part.
Stooping he picked up an empty Cupid's Elixir bottle along the curb and chucked it into the trash bin. His sister said Lia had classes until noon. He checked his Gucci watch. That gave her three hours to cool down and him time to plan.
If he couldn't convince her to see him as a man—a suitor—and withdraw her name from the lottery then he'd add his name to the list of bachelors. But how was he to draw her name?
The shady street gave way to the sunnypalazzo. Cupid and Psyche smiled at him from the windows of the council building. Who better than the gods? And he knew just the offering to curry their favor.
Entering thepalazzo, Dante tossed the warm loaf of bread from hand to hand. White doves waddled across the pink cobblestones. Between the green flames of the cypress trees on his left, tourists crowded around patio tables and dined on ropes of pasta. Gray stone storefronts lined the square on the right, selling trinkets, jewelry and offerings for Cupid's Temple. Bracketed by towering pine trees, the temple’s bright white columns glowed in the afternoon sunshine.
Mounting the worn steps, Dante smiled at the little girl blowing red heart-shaped bubbles from a pink wand. He paused in the portico as his eyes adjusted to the dim light. Roses, jasmine and carnations scented the air, no doubt from the heaps of flowers hiding the waist-high altar.
A little boy picked through the offerings. Holes poked through places in his gray toga, and the green trim was worn off the hem. Sharp collarbones showed through the dirt on his tan skin. His dark eyes fixed on the bread in Dante's hands, and he licked his lips.
For a moment, Dante's fingers sank into the offering. Hunger? Here in Amores? Had things changed so much since he'd been gone? He loosened his grip on the round loaf. The bread had been made to win Cupid and Psyche's help in wooing Lia, but…
The little boy wiped the drool glistening at the corners of his mouth.
"Here." Dante held out the loaf.
The child remained frozen for a moment then, in the blink of an eye, leapt forward, snatched the bread and dashed for the columns. His bare feet slapped the marble as he slipped outside.
"I don't think Cupid will count that as an offering." Lia's chuckle echoed around the rectangular portico. "If you'd wanted a twofer, you should have touched it to the altar first."
Dante inhaled deeply. His heart refused to settle in a normal tempo. It never did when she was around. Or when he thought of her.
Biding time, he strolled around the altar. He stopped in front of the oak doors to the temple's interior. In the dim light, he could picture waking up in bed next to her, making love to her just as dawn broke the horizon.
He adjusted the folds of his toga, hiding his body's reaction. What had she said? Ahh, now he remembered.
"I'll get another loaf." It wouldn’t be as perfect, but he hoped the gods appreciated the thought. "The boy looked like he could use it more."
He turned. His muscles lost cohesion at the sight of her, and he stumbled against the doorjamb. How was it possible that she was lovelier than when he'd seen her just hours ago?
"I just hope he eats it slow enough to enjoy it."
Her gown swayed with her hips as she joined him next to the altar. The thin green fabric molded her pert breasts before being gathered by a gold belt at her trim waist. She'd tamed her brown locks into corkscrew curls falling from an amber-and-gold wreath. Onyx bangles slid over her slim wrists as she wedged her terracotta bowl within the mound of flowers.
Leaning forward, Dante inhaled the heat from her skin and the tang of cream sauce. A pebble nestled in the ribbons of pasta, and black dotted the background. Somehow, he didn't think that was fresh-ground pepper.
"What recipe adds dirt to pasta?"
"Don't be silly." She elbowed him in the ribs. "SignoraCanis dropped her husband's lunch while taking it to him, so we swapped."
"With that offering, Psyche might help old man Sienestra draw your name tomorrow." He cupped her elbow before she could jab him again.
"Like you, I was hoping it was the thought that counted." She grinned, reached into her bodice and pulled out a slip of paper. "Besides, I have a written request as well."
What was she asking the gods for? If it was love, couldn't she see she had his? He felt it practically seep out his pores every time she came near.
Instead of snatching the note from her fingers, he steered her into thecella. Bad mistake. A statue of Cupid fondled his wife's alabaster breast, while Psyche's fingers had disappeared under her husband's fig leaf. A half-eaten round of bread and an empty pasta dish sat at their bare feet. That bread looked like his offering. Could the boy have been the god in disguise?
Color bloomed in Lia's cheeks when she spied the couple. She quickly turned her head and focused on the fire blazing in the center of the square room.
"Those two are going to give the tourists ideas about Italians."
They were certainly giving him ideas. Although he might be up for it, he seriously doubted Lia would appreciate being ravished. He tugged his own request out of his belt. He stared at the words painstakingly written in Latin.
Give me the means to make Lia happy for the rest of our lives. Was it too much to ask?