Temptation in Florence #3
“Happy birthday to you! Haaaaaappy birthday toooooo youuuuu.”
Carlina watched the faces of her family with an uneasy feeling as they sang for her cousin Ernesto. It was the first time she had invited Stefano Garini to a family party, making a clear statement about their relationship. When she announced he was coming, all eyes lit up. Message received. By now, they had probably discussed it with every inhabitant of Florence.
She glanced at Stefano out of the corner of her eyes. He sang without apparent emotion, his shoulders propped up against the frame of the door to her aunt Benedetta’s kitchen, his light eyes scanning the singing family. Even if you knew him well, it was hard to read the expression on his usually immobile face. Maybe his job as an investigating officer at the Homicide Department had made it a habit to hide his feelings behind a mask. But no. Carlina shook her head. Being withdrawn and self-contained was an integral part of his personality, possibly reinforced by his job, but not forced onto him by his work.
At this moment, he turned his head, and their eyes met.
Carlina’s heart made a somersault. How could I think he had an immobile face?
His eyes softened. He put his arm around her shoulders and pulled her close.
Carlina felt as if sudden sunshine had filled the kitchen in spite of the low hanging clouds on this cool spring Sunday.
“Happy birthday, dear Ernestoooooooo, haaaappy birthday toooo youuu!”
The family surged forward and hugged Ernesto until all you could see of him was his flaming red hair.
From the other end of the room, Carlina’s great-uncle Teo made hushing motions with his hands. “Shhh! Calm down, everyone!” He didn’t look intimidating, being small and wrinkled and with tufts of his white hair standing up, but he was dressed in exquisite taste, and there was a quiet authority about him that showed his status as the patriarch of the family more than the ensuing silence, filled with giggles from Annalisa, Ernesto’s older sister.
His rheumy eyes shone. “Today, in the honor of Ernesto’s eighteenth birthday, I have two surprises for you!”
The family broke into an excited babble.
“Silence, please.” Uncle Teo enjoyed his moment in the spotlight. “One of the surprises is a bit late.” He looked at his heavy golden watch. “The other, however, is here right now!”
Carlina looked around her. She had not noticed anything unusual, if you didn’t count the fact that Benedetta’s apartment was overcrowded with family members.
“May I present the . . . Magic Duo!” Uncle Teo flung both arms wide.
Carlina suppressed a smile. Uncle Teo looked like a ring master, announcing the best act of the circus.
Ernesto opened his eyes wide and looked around the room with interest. “What is it?” His gelled hair stood up like little flames.
“The . . . Magic . . . Duo!” Uncle Teo repeated with a booming voice. He strutted to the balcony door and flung it wide open.
On the small balcony, two women stood with broad smiles on their faces and their hands hidden behind their backs. They were dressed identically in black slacks and tight, red tops, but otherwise, they were as different as two women could be. The small one had a rosebud mouth and tumbling curls that made her look like a doll while the taller woman had an impressive chest and reminded one of a Viking by the way she stood with her feet planted wide apart.
“Who are they?” Garini bent his head to Carlina.
“The petite one is Maria. She lives two houses down the street and comes to clean the house regularly.”
“And the tall one?”
“That’s Simonetta, a friend of a cousin twice removed.” Carlina smiled at Simonetta. “She lives with my mother at the moment. She’s an opera singer who does a special training here in Florence.”
“The Magic Duo!” Uncle Teo was obviously enjoying himself in his role as ring master. He pulled the pale yellow curtain from the balcony door to the side and revealed a boom box. With a flourish, he switched it on, and the sound of a circus band blasted out.
On cue, the two women took their hands from behind their backs. They were holding colorful beanbags and started to juggle with obvious proficiency.
Within two minutes, windows opened in the neighboring houses and people leaned out wide to watch the show from the side. The distance between the historical houses on Via delle Pinzochere was so close that they had an excellent view.
Maria and Simonetta threw each other the bean bags and caught them with such speed that the bags turned into a colorful blur.
On the cobbled street one floor down, a group of Japanese tourists stopped and watched while documenting every second of the performance with cameras that looked like the last word in technology. One man was speaking into a voice recorder in rapid Japanese, possibly documenting the exact time and place of this unscheduled show.
“Wow.” Ernesto grinned and grabbed the arm of his best friend Rafaele, who was standing next to him. “Half the town is in an uproar because of my birthday.”
Rafaele nodded. “I am impressed,” he said in his calm way.
“You can’t shake Rafaele,” Carlina said in a low voice to Garini. “He’s the most placid person I’ve ever seen, and he’s only turned eighteen. I wonder what he’ll be like in old age. A rock, probably. I’ve heard it’s in the family. All the Altoris are like that, it seems.”
Garini’s lips twitched.
At this moment, the bells of the Basilica di Santa Croce, just around the corner, started to chime the full hour, creating a curious medley with the cheerful circus music.
Carlina got goose bumps. From somewhere, a strange foreboding came and filled her, a sense of danger approaching. She frowned and tried to shake it off. After the death of her American father when Carlina was thirteen, her mother had returned to the family home in Florence, and the bells of Santa Croce were the sound of Carlina’s teenage years. She had listened to them as she got used to her new world, and after some time, they had soothed her, had made her feel that some things at least remained the same and lasted throughout the centuries. So why was she getting the shivers now? She was not going to turn into her mother, seeing unspecified calamities at every turn of the way, even in the middle of a joyful birthday party.
The music came to a crashing crescendo. Maria and Simonetta caught the bean bags and bowed to their audiences inside and outside the house.
Applause came from all sides.
Carlina’s mother Fabbiola surged forward and hugged both women at the same time, the strand of henna red hair hanging loose in front of her face. “My darlings! I had no idea you had such hidden talents! You were wonderful!”
Before anybody could answer, the door to the kitchen flew open.
Uncle Teo whipped around and lifted both hands like a prophet on a mountain. The smile across his wrinkled face became even wider. “And here,” he intoned loud and clear, “is my second surprise! Come in, Valentino!”
The man standing in the door could well have been a model. He was of medium height but with well-developed muscles and broad shoulders. His classic dark suit, the shining black shoes and the expensive white shirt enhanced the aura of success and confidence he exuded.
“Valentino!” Ernesto laughed. “So you made it after all!”
The expression of dismay on Uncle Teo’s face was almost ludicrous. “So you knew he would be coming?”
“But of course!” Ernesto pushed his way through the family crowd and hugged his cousin. “He wrote about it on Facebook! Ever since he left for Dubai, we’ve kept in touch via Facebook. It’s great!”
Uncle Teo frowned. “What?”
Valentino winked at him over Ernesto’s shoulder. “I only promised I wouldn’t tell him on the phone, didn’t I?”
Uncle Teo pressed his lips together.
Garini lifted an eyebrow. “Slippery customer?” he asked so low only Carlina could hear.
“Very.” Carlina’s voice was dry. “Another cousin. He’s Aunt Alberta’s son. I’m not sure if you remember her – she’s Mama’s eldest sister and famous for her vicious tongue.”
Garini nodded. “Of course I remember her. She’s not here, though, is she?”
“No. She went on a cruise around the world together with Angela, her daughter. Good riddance, I say.”
Uncle Teo had recovered from his disappointment and pulled Valentino forward. “Come meet everybody. You’ve been away so long.”
Valentino looked around the room and waved. “Hello, everybody!” He winked at the girls on the balcony, standing with several bean bags scattered around their feet. “I see some lovely ladies I absolutely have to dedicate some time to, but first, the most important matter: Ernesto’s present.” He opened a serious looking leather briefcase and pulled out an envelope. “Here you are.”
Ernesto’s face lit up as he took the envelope. “A present? What is it?”
“Just open it.” Valentino gave him a smile that showed his perfect white teeth and a dimple in one cheek. “I know you’ll love it.”
Ernesto ripped open the envelope with an eagerness that made him look younger than this eighteen years.
Carlina’s throat constricted. She liked Ernesto, and she knew that he had always looked up to his elder cousin Valentino, who had led him astray more times than not. A glance at her aunt Benedetta, Ernesto’s mother, told her that Benedetta wasn’t as pleased as Uncle Teo about Valentino’s return from Dubai. The cautious expression in her eyes spoke volumes, and her mouth, lipsticked as always with a bright red color, was pressed together into one thin line. Oh, oh. Here’s trouble brewing.
Ernesto whooped. “Wow! That’s fantastic!” He waved the piece of paper and hugged Valentino, then turned around and showed the paper to Rafaele. “Look at this!”
“What is it?” Fabbiola asked.
“Yes, we want to know about it too,” Ernesto’s eldest sister Emma chimed in. “Tell us.”
Valentino gave her a smile that would have charmed the paint off a lamppost. “Patience, little cousin. In the meantime, tell me how you manage to look prettier every time I see you?”
Her husband Lucio frowned and laid a protective arm around Emma’s shoulder. “It’s being married to me that enhances her good looks.”
Emma beamed. “Quite right. We were married last September, you know.”
“Of course I know!” Valentino gave her another wink. “I well remember the pictures with your astonishing marriage gown.”
Lucio’s scowl deepened.
Carlina held her breath. Emma’s wedding gown had been spectacular because of it’s extreme shortness, showing her excellent legs to full advantage. It had also caused a bit of a scandal, but Emma had been adamant about it.
Rafaele looked up from the gift voucher he had been reading. “I can’t say I’d like it for myself,” he said with his calm voice and shrugged. “Bungee-jumping is not my kind of thing.”
Benedetta screamed and surged forward. “Bungee-jumping?” She tore the piece of paper from Rafaele’s hand and scanned the document with wide opened eyes. “Bungee-jumping?” Her voice turned shrill and high. “Are you telling me you’re going to kill my only son, my lamb, after I’ve managed to raise him for eighteen years?” Her fingers crumpled the voucher in her hands. “I forbid you to do this, Ernesto!”