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Grace In Milan * Summer In Siena
Grace In Milan
No matter how early Grace Danner arrived at her office, it was never early enough to keep up with Serafina Castellina. Her heart was racing. She'd already had too much espresso. Grace strode across the marble floor of Versace. The only sound echoing through the empty store was her strappy stilettos clicking. As ususal, she was the first one here. Scrutinizing the gleaming displays as she strode past them, she nodded her head in approval. The late Gianni Versace had built his reputation on creating over-the-top design and the store bearing his name did not disappoint.
Stepping into the glass elevator, Grace rode up to the fourth floor where she and Serafina had offices down the hall from one another. Working on Via Monte Napoleone in the heart of Milan allowed them to keep a close watch on street trends. Corporate offices were not their style.
As the elevator zoomed upstairs, Grace had a second to think about her upcoming reunion with Hope and Eden. What were the odds that the three of them would end up together again in Milan, Italy of all places? It hardly seemed possible five years had passed since they'd graduated from NYU. Her position here as Serafina's assistant barely left her time for her own life. How was she going to manage dealing with Hope and her issues?
Well, five years was a long time. Maybe Hope had become more independent. Maybe she was worried for no reason. In college Hope needed someone to listen to her as she constantly waffled over everything from clothes to men to jobs. Well, Eden didn't have much to do these days. She could be there for Hope. They could look after each other.
Grace sat down in her high-backed leather chair. Her desk, a Versace original, was replete with curvaceous legs and gold gilding. Greek key embossing outlined the desktop. Pushing back the lock of hair that constantly fell over her left eye, she logged in to her computer and simultaneously riffled through the pile of messages her secretary Irina had left for her. Scrolling through her email, she saw one from Eden and two from Hope. She opened the one from Eden first. Just as she began to read, her cell phone rang. Glancing at her phone, she saw Stefano's number appear. Already. What did he want? She just saw him last night. He never gave her a chance to miss him.
"Pronto," she said flipping open her cell phone, which was the size of a credit card.
"Buon giorno, mia bella. Como stai? I miss you already. I'm still in my bed and I can smell you. I wish you'd spent the night. I could be making such beautiful love to you right now." She heard him sigh and suspected he was fondling himself.
Sorry, Stefano. Phone sex was not on the morning To-Do list.
"Stefano, I can't talk right now. I'm in a meeting," she lied. "I'll call you later," she lied again.
"What are you wearing, mis cara?"
"Don't you have to go to work?"
"Carolina is opening today. I'll go in later." Stefano and his sister owned La Galleria d'Oro, an upscale jewelry store on nearby Via Spiga.
"Gotta go." Grace replied.
"Mi dispiace. Sorry! Call me later. We'll go out tonight."
"No. Hope's here and I've made plans with her and Eden. Girlfriend stuff. I'll call you soon," she snapped her phone shut.
She immediately felt guilty. The worse she treated him, the more he came back for more.
She opened Eden's email. email@example.com. Angelo, the doctor. Grace grimaced. It still rattled her everytime Eden referred to "my husband Angelo, the doctor" all in one breath. Never did she refer to him as either "Angelo" or "my husband." Even when they were dating and he was pre-med she'd called him "my boyfriend Angelo, the future doctor."
The phrase still rattled her. Maybe she'd talk to Hope about why Eden needed Angelo's identity to feel important. It didn't really make a difference. Grace was happy Eden was in Milan. Hope, too, for that matter.
There were six emails from Serafina since last night. Didn't the woman ever sleep? Quickly skimming them, Grace began her morning list. She'd been doing this for so long it was automatic. One column for those "must do immediately" items. The second column needed to be dealt with by the end of the day. There used to be a third list: things that could be put off. She'd long ago abandoned that one. In Serafina's world, nothing could be postponed.
Keeping up with Serafina was daunting. A distant cousin of the Versaces, originally Serafina might have had the inside track in getting her job, but she had long ago proven herself. Serafina was impressively good at what she did. As Director of Marketing and Design for Versace, she was acknowledged as one of the best in the industry. It was no wonder Milos was always sniffing around Grace. He never got much attention from his wife.
Everyone knew how much Grace wanted Serafina's job when the time came for Serafina to move on. But no one knew how much Grace also wanted her husband. Grace rarely admitted it, even to herself. No man was worth jeopardizing her career.
Summer in Siena
"How can you go? Have you lost your mind?" Mary shouted.
Allegra Mattina pulled the phone away from her ear, picturing her friend's face. She and Mary had been best friends long enough for her to know that Mary had her pinched face on.
"My life is out of control. I need to get away for awhile." Allegra paused.
"I think the time has come for me to go off somewhere and write my book," Allegra said, then held her breath and waited for Mary to resume yelling.
"Let me get this straight. Your toilet overflowed and you're leaving." Mary's voice was quiet now, but her disapproval still shouted through her words.
Allegra cleared her throat.
"There was this bug." She stopped. Was there any point to explaining?
"And I squished it with a tissue."
Ignoring her, Allegra continued. "I flung the thing into the toilet, flushed, and then I waited. The gurgle didn't sound right. It wasn't a healthy flush. You know what I mean? Everyone's heard that sound. I stood and watched blue water rising, jiggling the handle, knowing I couldn't control what was happening. The toilet overflowed as I watched horrified, unable to do anything." She stopped, knowing she sounded ridiculous.
"Aren't you overreacting? It's a toilet. Why is your water blue?"
"You're not taking me seriously."
There was a long silence on the other end of the phone. Finally, Mary spoke.
"Why now, Allegra? Why after all this time has passed are you coming apart?"
"I don't know what you mean."
"I think you do."
Hearing no response, Mary continued, "Where? Where do you want to go to write this book?"
Several weeks later, with her plans confirmed, Allegra answered Mary's question. Years ago, on a college excursion Allegra and two friends went on a whirlwind tour of Europe. One of those too cheap to be true packages where you get to see forty cities in fourteen days. Or that's what it felt like. The trip cured her forever of tour travel. But one place had always stood out in her memory: Siena, Italy. Long before Tuscany had become the trendy place to go, Allegra had been captivated by Siena's old-world charm, by its narrow streets, and ancient buildings. She remembered the vivid colors of Siena: the flags, the ceramics, the rusty red of the tile roofs, and the incredibly blue sky. She'd always wondered whether she had glorified the reality of the place, or if it was just as incredible as she recalled. There was only one way to find out.
"Don't start, Mary. Please. You're making me regret asking you to drive me."
Mary, who had been unusually quiet driving to the airport, had just blurted out, "You can't really be doing this. Why go to a foreign country for an entire summer?"
Allegra was tired of explaining. She'd done nothing but explain for weeks. First, to her brother Louis and her parents. Then to Diana. She'd expected the worst from her, but Diana had been amazing. She had given Allegra her blessing and the summer off from her job at the art gallery. No questions, just support. What a welcome relief! The gallery gang had all been excited for her. Of course, they were a rather unconventional bunch anyway. And Diana promised that her job would be waiting when she returned in September. Mary was the disappointment. She'd expected more from her best friend.
"Mary, this is the one thing in my life I always said I would do. I need to get this out of my system. I'm determined to write this book."
"That's not a good enough reason to leave the country," Mary continued. "We all say we're going to do a lot of things when we're young. It doesn't mean we do them."
"Turn here! You're missing our exit."
Mary turned the wheel sharply and Allegra's shoulder jammed up against the door.
"My sister always said she was going to have five children. Then she had one and snapped out of it." Mary looked over at Allegra. "If you wanted to write a book, you would have written a book. You're running away."
Allegra looked out the side window.
"Where were you born?" she asked.
"You know I was born in Michigan."
"Just because you're born someplace doesn't mean you're stuck there for the rest of your life, does it?"
After weeks of listening to her subtle and not so subtle jabs of disapproval, Allegra had finally had enough of Mary's badgering. "It's Italy. It's Europe. It's a summer. It's not as though I'm joining the Peace Corps, or going to some third world country." She paused, waiting for Mary to wish her well. Mary remained silent.
"I can't control everything in my life, but I sure as hell can control where I choose to be. I'm going to try to make my life happen, instead of waiting for life to happen to me."
Mary looked at her as though she was going to give a return speech. Allegra waited.
"Fine," was Mary's only reply.
They pulled up at the curb in front of Alitalia at Newark airport. Mary hugged her hard.
"I don't think you're coming back," she whispered. When she let go she had tears in her eyes.
"That's the strangest thing you've ever said to me," Allegra replied. "Of course I'm coming back. Summer will fly. I'll be back before you even have time to miss me. You'll see."
Heartbreak was a continent away. Allegra Mattina would never admit it was her broken heart that brought her to Siena, Italy. She insisted it was her broken toilet.
She didn't know what time it was, nor did it matter. Since she'd left Mary at the airport, she had been on a plane for more than ten hours, a train for who knows how long, and a bus for over an hour. She'd wandered, lost, in Florence, trying to find the bus station where she'd bought a one-way ticket to Siena. Now Allegra was standing frozen to the spot exactly where that bus had left her. What the hell had she been thinking? She didn't know a soul here, she barely spoke Italian, and she had no clue what she going to write a book about. Was Mary right?
No. Of course she wasn't. There were no taxis in sight. Allegra took a deep breath and began to walk the short distance to her new apartment. She looked at the street map she held in her hand. The apartment was a few blocks away. She'd come this far. She could manage this last leg of the journey. No problem.
Allegra had searched the web for weeks looking for the right apartment. Friends had warned her not to trust anything she found on the Internet, but Alessandro's charming, if choppy, English email messages had seduced her. So had the picture of his wife and small children standing on their balcony with the view of the city behind them. Intuitively, she trusted that the place would be exactly as he described.
Allegra could barely breathe. Those few short blocks had been straight up hill. "I
don't know how I forgot how hilly Siena is," she said to Alessandro, her new landlord. He grinned and nodded. He seemed a bit out of breath, himself. He should be. He'd
just lugged her suitcase up the three flights of steps to her new apartment.
Allegra wondered if he'd understood her. He spoke as little English as she spoke Italian. Alessandro was even more charming in person. And the apartment was perfect. Well, except for the three flights of stairs and no elevator.
Alessandro showed her around, chattering in Italian. He opened the door to her bedroom.
The room glowed with sunlight that streamed in from a window opposite her bed. The pale yellow walls were cheery and comforting. Allegra's gaze shot up to huge, ancient beams that criss-crossed the high ceiling.
"Bella," she said, finally remembering some Italian. Beautiful. She pointed at the beams.
"Si, si, si. Mille anni," Alessandro smiled, nodding. One thousand years old. He said more but that was the only part Allegra clearly understood.
How had anyone carried logs up the hills of Siena to construct this building, this room, ten centuries ago? Amazing. She could barely manage the thought of the three flights of steps she had to climb to get to this apartment. How was she going to manage all those stairs for the next three months? She shoved thoughts of that ordeal aside. Nothing was going to spoil her first morning in Siena. She wanted to relish every second.
Alessandro walked over to the window and pointed to the view outside. They were so high up she could look down on the curved, red clay tiles that stretched across Siena on rooftop after rooftop. The roofs were so close together you could walk across them.
Swallows swooped and flirted with each other, moving through the clear, blue sky in flight so constant and rhythmic it was like watching waves moving toward the shoreline. She squinted into the sun.
So what if she didn't know anyone? She would have nothing to do here except write. Something about the fact that this medieval town had remained frozen in time and space for centuries, gave Allegra a sense of calm she hadn't experienced in a long while.