I should have kept my mouth shut. What point was there in saying anything, anyway? How foolish I must have seemed, protesting like a jilted girlfriend. What is wrong with me?
Jason's face flashed through her mind again, and her cheeks flushed with heat. She pushed the thought away and passed one hand over her face to wipe away the perspiration.
She shook her head and paused atop a bridge to watch a pair of gondolas pass at the end of the canal. Raising her camera she framed the shot, feeling a momentary embarrassment for taking such a "touristy" photo.
Ah, what the hell? Why not? It's not like I'll ever come here again.
Another gondola passed beneath the bridge a moment later and she stilled herself, waiting for the perfect image. An errant breeze lifted her skirt just as the gondola emerged. The gondolier looked up at her, and Emily dropped her free hand down to protect her modesty. His blue eyes flashed with mirth at her reaction before he turned back to focus on the task at hand, taking his crooked grin out of her view.
She couldn't resist the smile that tugged at the corners of her mouth before she crossed to the other side of the bridge.
Finally, a reaction that's just for me - but only because of a panty-flash? That figures.
Emily frowned and glanced around the shop. Her hands were still shaking in her pockets and now her whole body had begun to tremble.
"I'm sorry," she said. Color rushed to her cheeks fast enough to make her dizzy. "I'm sorry," she repeated, and edged past the stranger to hurry out the door.
She paused at the top of the steps, then set off for the bridge at the far end of the campo. The sound of footsteps behind her followed a moment after.
Emily forced herself to stop and turn to face the stranger who was crossing the campo in amiable pursuit, his blue silk tie flapping in the breeze. An image of Pepe le Pew bouncing after the object of his affection came to mind while she watched his unhurried approach.
"You left this back there," he said, offering a scroll of paper tied with a purple ribbon as he stepped up to her.
"You're very kind, but, that isn't mine." She took a step away, busying her hands with her camera bag.
"Isn't it?" He glanced down at the object still in his hand. "Are you certain?"
"Positive," she said, then walked away, her heart pounding so hard she could barely think.
"Oh, no... You mean that...?"
Something peculiar in his tone made her stop and look back at him. He stood with the scroll clutched close to his chest, an expression of exaggerated horror on his face.
"Quick! Don't let him catch us - he's faster than he looks!"
Emily watched in bewilderment as he hurried to her side.
"Signorina, have you ever been in a Venetian jail? They're terribly humid and miserable and I don't recommend the experience."
"What are you talking about?"
He waggled the scroll in his hand, careful to keep it hidden between them. "I thought it was yours, so I took it to bring it to you."
"Oh!" She cast an instinctive glance toward the shop. The handsome stranger's mouth quirked just the least little bit at this, and she knew that she'd been suckered. Emily nodded to begrudgingly acknowledge his efforts and raised one hand in a farewell gesture. "Cute. Funny. Goodbye, now."
"I had a good evening, Emily Miller." His voice was quiet in obvious deference to the silence of the building. "I trust you did, as well?"
"Yes," she answered without hesitation. "Yes, Jacopo, I've had a lovely evening."
"Bene..." He nodded and then cleared his throat. "I have to go; I have an early morning, so..."
Emily nodded her understanding, suppressing a mental curse at the same time. Before she could speak, Jacopo released her hands and stepped closer, once again framing her face in his hands and kissing her with a surprising tenderness.
Determined not to make the same mistake as before, Emily returned the kiss in kind, meeting his efforts as they deepened and he pressed closer still. She wanted this, wanted him, and she knew this opportunity was unlikely to present itself again.
It was difficult to think and soon she abandoned the effort, giving in to his kisses and offering her own.
Somewhere on the edge of her consciousness, she was aware of the sound of footsteps climbing the stairs to where they were. Why worry about getting caught? She was a tourist, destined never to see this place or these people ever again.
Jacopo certainly wasn't about to be distracted. His own eagerness and excitement was all too evident when she pressed close to him, and not only in the way his hands tangled in her hair, or clutched at her waist to hold her against him.
Never in her life had anyone kissed her like this. She could smell the wine, slightly sour and earthy mingling with his own sweetly-clean breath with each kiss. His lips tasted salty and warm. His tongue, slick and tender, toyed easily with her own. His hand slipped below her waist to draw her hips to his, making no secret of his physical wants beneath the fine linen of his trousers. His lips trailed along her jaw, his breath warm and eager in her ear a moment before dropping to tease the soft skin behind it.
A pleasant shiver ran through her, and she was vaguely aware that the footsteps she'd heard had stopped. A muted buzzer sounded and the door to the hotel clicked noisily before being opened and shut, admitting the guests surprised by such a display.
I have to ask him in. What am I so afraid of?
As though reading her mind, Jacopo drew away to look her in the eye.
It was all right there, she thought; it was obvious he wanted her, and all she had to do was ask him to come to her room so they could be together. She focused her gaze just above the topmost button of his shirt, watched his Adam's apple bob there for a moment in the open "v," and took the leap.
"-Would you like-"
"-I have to go-"
They spoke at the same time, their sentiments canceling each other out.
Damn it, anyway.
Fifteen minutes later, that man was smiling at her again. His gaze tickled at her consciousness like so many nimble fingers until she allowed herself to sneak a few glances at him on the sly, using the reflection in the window. In only a few minutes, she noted he was Jacopo's exact opposite in many ways.
He's the other side of the same coin, though, I'll bet.
Still, he was easy on the eyes, with a strong jaw, dark eyes and dark, boyish curls which fell along his brow. His clothes weren't fancy, but classic in design. A pale blue shirt peeked out from beneath his red scarf.
When he crossed his legs, she risked a direct look at him and smiled in spite of herself. His shoes were black running shoes, rather scuffed at that. She knew too well the premium Italians placed on footwear; it was nice to see someone who wasn't completely fussy about his appearance for a change.
When he drew out an eyeglass case from the inside pocket of his coat, she turned to the reflection in the window once more. He perused a copy of La Repubblica -- not Libero, not La Padania -- so she was reasonably sure he wasn't from the Veneto. Despite her fugue, this thought made her smile again. A glimpse of his dark eyes straying in her direction, followed by his own secretive smile, caused a pleasant shimmy down her spine.
Her heart leapt skittishly even as she pushed the expression off her face and felt the blush creep up from her collar to tint her cheeks.
The broken window fell open with a soft thump and the banging and rattling of the train's passage drowned out the soft hum of conversation around her. A steady, chilling wind blew inside the carriage. Several passengers grumbled their disapproval and tugged their scarves and coats more tightly around themselves, but none made an effort to close the window.
After a moment or two, the smiling man stood and pushed his spectacles up the bridge of his nose with an air of determination. Emily observed with even more open interest this time as he returned to the broken window, shoved it upward and stuffed the wedge of paper between the Plexiglas and the frame once more.
When he turned, he saw her watching and paused, his smile lighting his face again. His eyes met hers fully, and she looked away, the blush heating her cheeks with a tingling swiftness. She returned her gaze to the window and the countryside emerging in the growing daylight beyond it.
In spite of herself, her eyes shifted to follow him yet again when he stepped away from the row with the broken window.
His hair had been tousled by the wind, and upon settling back in his seat he ran one hand cautiously over it, taming any wild, out-of-place waves. His dark eyes behind the oval frames of his spectacles flicked in her direction before he turned his head and directed his gaze out his own window. She thought it was clear that he was trying not to be obvious about watching her.
«Emily, you need to get over yourself,» Jacopo's voice scolded. «Pale skin and a mousy pony-tail on a dumpy thirty-four-year-old woman won't catch the eye of someone like him.»
Still, it was just a fun little daydream, right? Then she thought about why she was on the train, and she revived her interest in the magazine.
As they continued walking, Davide continued to explain in detail the significance of countless monuments and landmarks, one after another, only hesitating in his monologue to answer any questions she posed.
"It's simply astounding to me how Europeans retain all this information." She shook her head in wonder.
"It surprises you? Why do you say that?"
"It's just that, if you were to ask the average American the history of their town or their country - and I include myself in this, by the way - aside from the high points, we'll likely draw a blank. Ask a European the same questions, they're capable of giving you an informative but enjoyable tour. How is that possible?"
Davide thrust his hands into his pockets and hunched over a bit, shielding her from the wind. "I have a theory about this," he began, arching his eyebrows and pausing until she indicated he should continue. "I think this is, in part, because the United States is so young. Much of the history there is history only because it happened in the past - and you keep it there with a firm hand by destroying everything as you go along. Nothing lasts. But here -" He spread his arms out and turned in a circle in the middle of the piazza. "Here, in Italia, at least, we live with our history - it is with us every day. We cannot forget completely because we see it every day of our lives. For example," he continued, gesturing in the direction they'd just come from, "I work at the University, so I show you the University. It is an important part of my life, hai visto, no? As it happens, the University of Bologna is the oldest university in all Europa. It started here, it continues here - it might always be here. Without this school, there would have been no Oxford, no Cambridge, no Yale, no Harvard, no University of… of… Indiana.
"Since we live our history in this quite intimate fashion - cheek to cheek, as it were - it is easier to recall. Throughout Europa our history is the history of civilization, of humanity. Our history is the history of the world entire, and it's not possible to set that aside so easily."
His constantly-gesturing hands fell at last to rest at his sides, his impromptu lecture at an end. Emily stood quietly, looking up into his face, expressionless.
"I see," she deadpanned, as brief as he'd just been verbose.
Davide rolled his eyes and took her hand with a resigned air to tuck it in the crook of his arm. His chuckle a moment later reassured her that he'd gotten her joke, and Emily giggled as they set off. They wound their way out of the University Quarter and past the Two Towers of Bologna - with their distinctive leaning - then along random twists and turns until Davide paused in a residential neighborhood.
"It's lucky that we met this way, you know," he said in a matter-of-fact tone.
"Why do you say that?" She grinned. "Is it because you've been able to show me around town?"
"In part," Davide nodded encouragement.
"So you could buy me the best brioche I've ever had?"
"That too. But it is actually lucky because I could bring you here." He gestured toward a doorway and the small brass plaque beside it.
"Il Cuore de La Grassa," she read aloud. "There's no menu posted. Are they open now?"
"There is no menu, because whatever they make, you eat - and I can promise you, you will enjoy all of it. This is perhaps the best place in all Bologna for true local cuisine, and as you may understand, that is no small boast in this city."
"Goodness. I hope I'm up to the task."
"Oh, you will be."
"Emilia, I will let you in on a secret, okay? Something that very few non-Europeans will understand."
"Pay attention," he said, facing her and raising one finger in front of her face. "Because this is very, very important."
Emily nodded, swallowing down her resentment at his addressing her with such a schoolteacher's gesture, knowing he didn't mean to condescend.
"People like that woman up there?" Davide gestured in the direction the woman had gone, then turned to look that way, as well. "They do not exist. She is a figment of the collective imagination; I swear it."
"Obviously they do exist, Davide. There she goes."
"Oh, you are just accepting the myth."
"All right, then," she said, sighing in mock frustration. "Don't answer the question."
"Fine, fine…. I will tell you." His voice turned cold and remote, and he bit out each word with crisp precision. "She does it the same way all the rest of them do it. She starves herself, works out to excess, and denies herself all the real pleasures that life has to offer. She keeps company with a good man who cares for her, but she only stays until someone with more money comes along." Voice rising, his eyes narrowed and he turned his cutting gaze to Emily, holding her fast in place. "Then, she takes a married lover who treats her like the puttana that she aspires to be and she calls that being happy. As long as she has those useless labels plastered all over her body like some sort of high-fashion Formula Uno pilot, I suppose that she probably is happy."
Emily stepped away, taken aback. "I'm sorry, I didn't mean…I just wondered how..."
The lines around Davide's eyes softened and the tension in his jaw faded. He swallowed hard, looking away from her toward the passersby. His hands rose to needlessly adjust his scarf and collar, almost obscuring his face for a few moments. "Mi dispiace, Emilia. I'm sorry. I did not want to..."
"I don't understand, though. You liked the woman in the ristorante, didn't you?"
"Sì, but there is a world of difference, capisce? She has curves, and warmth, and sensuality," he said insistently, his hands shaping the air in subtle ways. "She has satisfaction with life and it shows. You can tell some things by observing a person, and that is what I have observed in her."
"And La Signorina Dolce e Gabbana, back there?"
"Not a trace of life to be found. So many words are, are…emblazoned across her body, anywhere you look - but she doesn't have anything to say. She is thin, brittle… just lifeless." He fell silent, his brow furrowed, his lips pursing while he stood deep in thought. "No. There is just no life behind the façade. So many girls - women, I mean - are like this today. No depth, no life…no hope. Just empty shells."
Shoulders slumping, Davide stared unfocused at the stream of pedestrians that passed. There was such sorrow etched in his face, he no longer seemed the kind and confident man who had escorted her throughout the day. Aching to reach out to him, to erase whatever memory had ensnared him this way, the hurt and anger in his eyes stayed her hand. He seemed so far within himself she doubted she could reach him, anyway.
A harsh cough behind him caught Davide's attention, and he turned to find a rather peevish, balding man in a rumpled suit, waving a ticket.
"Mi scusi; questo è il mio posto." His Milanese accent carried a distinctly condescending tone which Davide elected to ignore.
"Mi dispiace." Davide smiled at Emily, then turned to face the man. "I hope you wouldn't mind trading seats with me?"
"Why should I trade? I have a ticket for this one."
Emily sat back with a frown, and Davide tried again, his smile fixed upon his face.
"I see that, sir. But as I said, I hope you wouldn't mind-"
"I paid for this seat, young man, and I want it."
"Ho capito," Davide said, determined to maintain his temper even after the snide "young man" comment. "But you see, we weren't able to book seats together," he gestured toward Emily, who gave a flickering smile to the newcomer, "and I was given that post, right over there." He indicated his previous seat with a tilt of his head, but the rumpled man didn't as much as glance that way.
"Non è un problema mio. You should have booked earlier, or something. Besides, how do I know if that was your seat at all? Now do stand aside, or shall I call a conductor?"
What the hell?
Davide looked at Emily, fighting to keep his embarrassment from showing. The muscles in his cheeks creaked in protest of his frozen expression.
"Go ahead," she said, her voice full of quiet disappointment. She tilted her head toward him and nodded.
Davide's smile faded at last. He pulled his ticket out of his coat pocket as he stood and faced the man in the aisle.
"This is my ticket, sir. Why not trade seats, then? As you can see, it's already stamped and-"
"I don't like to ride facing backwards."
Davide glimpsed Emily rolling her eyes and his heart sank.
She'll be stuck next to this cretino all the way to Milano, no doubt.
"Davide, I'll trade tickets with you." Emily stood up, sighing. "Give it to me - here's mine."
Davide and the man stepped aside to allow her to enter the aisle. She took the ticket from Davide's hand, gave him her own, and waited.
"Emilia, I-" He glanced at the rumpled man, then at the ticket in his hand.
She said nothing, only smiled, and Davide smiled in return.
"As you wish, amore." He settled into her vacated seat, and the rumpled man settled into his own with a smug grin.
She went to Davide's former seat, sat for a few moments, then returned.
"I'm sorry to disturb you," Emily said, leaning over the rumpled man to speak to Davide, "but would you mind if I sat here?"
"If you sat where, exactly?" Davide asked, leaning toward her so they met in front of him.
"Well, there aren't any seats left, except that one," she jerked her head to indicate Davide's old seat, "and I don't like riding backwards... So I thought I'd sit with you?"
He nodded and smiled. "Certainly. I'd like that."
Emily turned toward the other man and gave him a smile. "Lei capisce, naturalmente?" she said, slipping into Italian for the rumpled man's benefit. "You understand, of course? I'd hate to sit apart from my fiancée."
With that, she climbed over the man's legs and settled onto Davide's lap, putting her arms around his neck and her back to the other man.
Davide's eyes widened with surprise and he struggled to keep his expression in check while he wrapped his arms around her.
I never thought she'd actually do it.
"Sometimes, I suppose, 'impulsive' is good." She smiled, but it faded immediately. "Other times, maybe not so much."
A darkness hooded her eyes in the silence that followed.
"Dimmi, Emilia," he began, hoping to help her evade her dark mood, "When is being impulsive a good thing, in your opinion?"
"What?" The corners of her mouth twitched upward, giving him hope.
"When is being impulsive a good thing? Give me examples to make me feel better."
The laugh that escaped her was quiet but genuine.
"Three," he said, and nodded decisively. "That's a good number."
"Okay, um…" Holding her hand up, she made a fist and extended her index finger. "One; when you allow someone to give you help when you'd prefer that he just go away, instead. That was one of the best impulsive decisions I've made in ages."
Davide smiled, his heart skipping. "You wanted me to go away?"
"In that moment I wanted it more than anything, yes. I'm glad you didn't, though; very glad."
He took a deep breath and gestured toward her before taking another sip of wine. "Give me another example."
"Okay…" She seemed deep in thought for a moment, her smile playing over her lips all the while. "Oh!" she said, and laughed a full, heartfelt laugh while raising her hand again to count off her second answer. "When they offer the dessert tray in a nice restaurant - that's a great time to be impulsive."
He laughed too, his stomach shivering pleasantly for a reason he couldn't quite fathom.
"Another, amore, please." Too late, he realized he'd made the endearment, and he froze, waiting for her response. Frustratingly, thankfully, she didn't react to it at all. Instead, her eyes skimmed over the restaurant, as though seeking an answer in the cream curtains and potted plants.
She laughed once more, a soft puff of breath pushed through her smile, and he watched her, waiting.
"Accepting a kiss from a man by a fountain is a wonderful time to be impulsive."
Davide had so intensely imagined her saying it, he almost believed she really had.
When her gaze had moved all the way around the dining room and returned to their table, it met his and held it in a gentle, tenuous grasp. He didn't want to look away, and she made no effort to do so either, as far as he could tell.
If I kiss her again, what will she do? Do I risk it, or no?
He folded his hands together and rested his chin on them, his elbows on the table. His mouth had gone desperately dry, but he didn't dare reach for his glass of wine to sate his thirst. His tongue slipped out to prod his dry lips and he thought of their kiss in Piazza del Nettuno.
In an unexpected echo, she did the same, a flash of palest pink against the richer flesh of her lips; he flinched, a low, unconscious twitch of his hips and his head at the same time.
He placed a light kiss above her eyebrow, then traced her profile tenderly with his nose, breathing in the perfume the hotel soap had left on her skin. He wondered when she had washed her face. Was it before he had joined her the second time? Or after he'd fallen asleep on the sofa?
Kissing her cheek as softly as he could, he drew back when she shifted position next to him. She turned her mouth up to his, the warmth beckoning with silent want, and he found her lips unerringly in spite of his self-imposed darkness.
Her response was better than he had dared anticipate. Emily received his kiss without any reservation, returning it with a gentle eagerness, instead. She encouraged more, slipping ever closer to him and moving to accommodate his first, hesitant caresses sliding blindly along her body, over the soft flannel pajamas.
He felt her anxious trembling mirroring his own while they continued their initial timid kisses and explorations of each other. Her pleased shiver when his fingertips grazed the nape of her neck made him smile; when he kissed her ear, she stifled a small giggle that made her body quiver next to his.
"Davide," she whispered against his shoulder a few moments later, her breath warming him through his t-shirt. She pressed her lips to the fabric and trailed soft kisses up to the bare skin of his throat, lingering over the hollows in a decidedly pleasing way. He felt her lips vibrate with his own pleased hum before she broke away to kiss his lips again; she permitted his more probing efforts, now, her tongue slipping over his in teasing return each time.
Still, he kept his eyes closed, unwilling to chance breaking the fragile spell between them. The night air seemed cooler yet, but their arms and legs twining beneath the sheets warmed rapidly from their sweet, inadvertent friction.
Emboldened, he slipped a hand under the blouse of her pajamas and her stomach fluttered, ticklish, at his touch. Instead of a giggle or a sigh, this time she gave a small gasp, and he hesitated.
Not now, not yet, Emilia, please…
The "Oh" undid him. That single soft syllable and the need and want that filled it, coupled with his name. He'd never heard his name spoken in such a way before, not like that, not meant for him alone to hear.
They walked along the paved path toward the boardwalk over the lake. Birdsong came and went from the heights of the trees while a soft breeze swept around them to ripple the surface of the water at the shore.
"You know," Paul began, "we could make this a regular thing, if you wanted. A movie, a burger - or a pizza, if you prefer. I dunno, are you homesick for Italy, at all? Like, do you miss your friends there and stuff?"
Davide's smile in the café, over his caffè macchiato came to mind, giving her heart a small twist.
"Yes, and no. Sometimes more than others, you know."
They continued walking, their footsteps making quiet thuds on the wooden planks of the boardwalk. The day was cool, but the sun kept it from getting too chilly, and now the breeze sweeping over the lake was enough to make Emily zip up her jacket.
Pausing to look out over the water, Emily leaned against the railing and Paul did the same. In her peripheral vision, she saw him watching her. Faint warmth crept into her cheeks and she hoped he'd attribute it to the coolness of the day.
"I can't imagine living so far from home," he said, just loudly enough to be heard over the rustling of the trees on the shoreline.
"Neither could I, until I'd done it."
She turned to face him and he leaned in, paused, then kissed her softly. He had to bend to do so, and she had plenty of opportunity to dissuade him, but she didn't.
He didn't linger too long, either. He resumed leaning against the railing while a shy smile played across his lips, and Emily returned her gaze to the water as her coloring returned to normal.
Not bad. Not great, either, but still, it's the first kiss.
But would there be more? Did she want more?
They'd walked the full circle of the boardwalk and the islands and returned to the path under the trees while Emily pondered this possibility. Paul continued to ask questions about Italy and she continued to answer, until they stopped in a quiet copse of trees where he pulled her to him and gave her a longer, more determined kiss.
She allowed this, waiting for something more to happen. Davide's voice would speak up, or she would feel that certain, indefinable something that would tell her this was right, and Paul was the one she wanted.
Neither thing happened.
Paul's kisses were pleasant enough, yes, but they didn't draw her out of herself - out of the world, for that matter - as Davide's had. That Paul didn't notice the lack of enthusiasm on her part was sad, but somehow it wasn't surprising. All she knew was that she didn't feel what she needed to, and she'd have to find a way to end this on a good note.
We take from these things what we want to take, I suppose.
With that came a realization; she knew what she wanted. She just had to determine how to get it.
Or more to the point, how to get it back.
The thuds of books on desks and the shuffle of feet over worn ceramic tiles soon quieted down. Stepping up to the lectern, Davide took a few moments to sift through his notes until the familiar chirp of a mobile phone distracted him.
Glancing across the classroom, he noticed a student slipping one hand into her purse. She retrieved the offensive object and read the screen before reflexively lifting it to her ear.
"Spegnilo, Alessia," he said, wishing he could make a more forceful command.
A few of the students snickered while she murmured a hasty goodbye to her caller and switched off the phone.
"Scusa, Prof," she said with a shrug. "I forgot it was on."
He narrowed his eyes, nodded in response and went back to his notes. A week into the second semester and they were still "forgetting" at least once per lesson. Never mind they should have figured it out during the first semester.
I could paint a notice on the wall behind my head, Turn off all mobile phones or I'll toss them out the window, for all the good it would do.
"All right then," he began, pulling a page of notes out from the stack in front of him. "Who wants to summarise Monday's -"
A tweeting tone in the far corner of the classroom interrupted him. Davide turned in time to catch Claudio jumping in his seat and fumbling with the tiny mobile. "Scusa, Prof!" the boy said, cutting the phone off mid-tone.
At least he actually sounded guilty. That's a step in the right direction.
"Anyone else? Shall we all check to be sure our mobiles are off?"
In spite of his desire to sound sarcastic, he realized it had come off as a polite request. A handful of students actually double-checked, however, and he was gratified to see them turning off the phones and putting them away.
"Va bene… If there won't be any more interruptions…?" he paused, scanned the room and tried to ignore the sniggering of some of the students. As a class they knew him too well. He was no disciplinarian, no stern and forceful sort of lecturer, but he preferred not to have to work so hard at this. "Okay. Who wants to summarise Monday's high points, then?"
As he'd expected, Mohal's hand was the first in the air, the boy rising to stand next to his desk and read his notes aloud in his musical accent. Davide only half-listened, his thoughts already turning to the day's planned topics and the inevitable questions that would follow.
When Mohal finished reading, Davide nodded in his direction with a slight smile. "Grazie, Mo. Now, picking up where we left off, I -"
A distinct, melodic beeping sounded and he grasped the edges of the lectern with both hands, scanning the class.
"Santo Cielo…" he groaned. "Whose is it this time?"
There were no furtive shufflings, no patting of pockets or digging into rucksacks or purses. A few students exchanged sidelong glances, with some turning in their seats to look around the room, seeking the guilty party.
The beeping continued. Davide's eyes took another sweep across the room before Mohal raised his hand, a shy grin on his lips.
"Prof? Forgive me, but I think it's yours." The boy tilted his head toward Davide's desk, across from the lectern.
She toyed with the key while they walked toward her room, and Davide paced a half-step behind her the whole way. The urge to turn and look at him was almost irresistible. His presence at her shoulder was somehow reassuring.
He paused in the doorway while she stepped inside and turned to face him.
"I should go," he said. "But I'll be back in the morning with your bag. Is there anything you need?"
Banishing the thought almost as quickly as it came, she watched him for a moment before speaking.
"No, I think I'm fine. I always make a point of packing a few second-day things in every bag I have, just in case," she said, hiding her cringe as best she could.
"Davvero?" He chuckled softly. "I do the same thing." He leaned against the doorjamb, his dark eyes watching her with a soft, studious expression.
"Sì?" She laughed too, and stepped closer to rest her hand on the frame, next to his shoulder.
"Sì…" Davide gestured over his other shoulder shyly, half-nodding. "I should go," he repeated, lingering where he stood.
"Okay." Emily didn't even try to keep the disappointment out of her voice. "I'll see you tomorrow, then."
His eyes met hers, held her gaze in the silence. Her heartbeat moved to resume its frantic pounding just beneath her throat, her pulse filling her ears until she wondered if he might be able to hear it. There was just enough time to wonder if she might faint from a combination of anxiousness and exhaustion before he leaned in and brought his mouth to hers in a light, barely-there kiss.
For a moment she wondered if she had imagined the kiss, as he seemed not to have moved from his place in the doorway. The next left no doubt.
Davide slipped his arms around her in a gentle embrace, his lips meeting and parting hers with soft, unhurried intent. Emily pressed closer, slid her hands up to touch his face before she wound her arms around his neck. His arms tightened around her until she felt the buttons of his shirt through her light sweater. Her fingers itched with the desire to undo each button, slowly and with great care.
The kiss ended and Davide touched his fingertips to her cheeks, his lips alighting just behind his caresses. She savored the solidity of him pressed against her chest, the warmth of his body seeping through his shirt to warm her. She eased her hand down from his neck to his heart, felt it speeding under her hand, and smiled.
Breathing deep, she relished his scent - not his cologne, but his scent, salty-sweet beneath the clean-laundry smell of his clothing. Emily wanted to curl up under his chin and nest there, in the hollow of his throat, were it only possible.
I should ask him to stay. What's the harm? Why wait?
Before she could speak, he drew away, his hand still resting on her cheek.
"Buonanotte, Emilia. I'll see you in the morning."
He's right. I don't know why, but he's right.
"Buonanotte, Davide. Grazie per tutto. Thanks for everything."
Another swift kiss, a chorus or two of "Ciao-ciao," and he was walking toward the elevator while she closed the door and exhaled a long, unsteady breath.
"We need to talk this through," he insisted, but she tried to wrench out of his grasp.
"Let me go."
"No, Emilia," he said, tightening his grip. "Come back to the flat. I meant what I said about you being alone."
"What you mean is that you'd be alone, too, right? You don't want to be alone. I'm perfectly fine with it myself."
"Let me go!"
She spun around toward him and stumbled, and he bent to catch her before she could fall. Instead, her raised hand met his right eye, knocking off his glasses and connecting with a bright flash of light and pain.
"Ahia!" Davide clapped one hand over his eye, releasing her.
"Oh, my God… Are you okay?" Her words were muffled by her hands, cupped over her mouth beneath her disbelieving eyes, but she knew he heard her clearly enough.
"You hit me?"
"Not on purpose! I've never hit anyone before." She reached to pull his hand down and Davide pulled away from her only to bump against the window of a shop. "Are you okay?"
"I don't know - I've never been punched before."
"I didn't punch you."
"Are you sure? It certainly feels like you did… Vacca boia, it hurts."
"Let me see. Please?"
Davide slouched against the wall next to the shop window and let her pull his hand away. While her hands fluttered around his face and brushed his hair back, he sighed, a heartfelt and resigned sound. "At least you weren't wearing the ring."
"'A' ring, I mean. At least you weren't wearing a ring." He looked around, eyes narrowed the better to see. "Dov'è sono i miei occhiali? Where are my glasses?"
Spinning on her heel, Emily gingerly took a few steps, half-convinced she'd find them in the worst manner possible. Then, with a sigh of relief, she bent and picked them up from the sidewalk. She checked them for scratches in the light from the window display before turning back to him.
Silently Davide reached for them, a vaguely resentful scowl on his face. He also checked the glasses for damage before trying to put them on, and made a small hiss of pain as he set them back on the bridge of his nose.
"I am so, so sorry," Emily said, contrite.
"Never mind that; how does it look to you?"
Emily frowned. The skin around his eye had already taken on a slight puffiness. "I think you'd better get a cold compress on that."
"Oh, Dio…" he groaned, but didn't move from his place against the wall.
"Come on, if you wait too long you'll get a shiner."
"Un occhio nero."
"Ma, va… Okay." He got to his feet and folded his arms across his chest, rubbing them for warmth. Shaking his head, he spared her a glance and headed back the way they had come, seeming to trust her to follow.
I don't believe in fairy tales. It's important to make that clear. Castles don't impress me, and princesses and princes are nothing special in Europe. I've lived here all my life and I've never had a magic spell cast over me.
Until this year. Until this Tour.
She was no princess, no member of royalty, just an average woman of average means who happened to know something about my profession. That's always nice.
All she wanted was an autograph. It was all she asked for, and at first I was too distracted to oblige. My mind was elsewhere, which is only natural after a stage. I was exhausted and dropped the pen.
What was unusual was that I bent to pick it up, and so did she. The crowd seemed to meet over our heads and when I saw her eyes, up close, I felt the whole world tilt out from under my feet. I wanted to attribute it to fatigue, to the cessation of dopamine which keeps one going during a race, but I couldn't.
Instinctively, I knew better.
We stood together, my hands over hers holding the paper in one and the pen in the other. My lips refused to form the question in any language, and I had no idea which language she spoke, anyway.
It didn't matter. Desire is its own language, and needs no words to have a voice.
“Abigail,” she said, and released my hand so I could sign the paper. “My name is Abigail.”
Charles knew I thought Federico was handsome. For some time he'd been teasing me about the fact, referring to the cyclist as my boyfriend, as in:
“Your boyfriend is doing well, today,” or, “Your boyfriend took the Royal – well done.”
At some point, in order to make him stop, I'd have to slap him and shut him up.
This was my first time attending more than a stage or two of the Tour d'Europa, and it was fun to follow someone who was doing well. After the fourth stage – a fairly easy climbing stage, as it turned out, where I'd gotten a beautiful picture of Federico crossing the summit – I was determined to get his autograph. I thought I'd frame it with the photo I'd taken and display it in our living room when I got home.
We only had one chance for the autograph. After the next stage, Charles and I were at the finish, and Federico took the Royal (as the race leader's jersey was called) once again. It was his fourth day finishing first, and the proud smile on his face was sweet enough to give my heart a flutter.
I tried to ignore that as Charles somehow managed to get us close to the steps off the podium, where Federico would exit and head back to his team's bus. We blended into the confusion along the fences, occasional bursts of pandemonium erupting all around us as the fans cheered and chanted for their favorite riders.
Dazed, I found myself swept up into a bunch of fans and tour officials. Charles' hand held mine tight, pulling me along. I heard him asking on my behalf, and then, as if he'd simply materialized there, Federico was extending one hand to me.
I was so surprised, I actually dropped the pen. Federico and I both bent to pick it up, and for a moment we were both crouched down, surrounded by the wall of legs around us. His eyes – exquisitely dark, his lashes ridiculously long and feminine – met mine and their expression was wide and startled.
A sensation of falling swept over me as his hands took mine, the pen and paper we held the only things between us. He seemed about to speak, but said nothing instead, and we stood together at last.
He signed his name with a tired flourish and handed the pen and paper back with great care. His eyes met mine again before seeming to search my face for something.
My first, foolish thought was that he was memorizing me.