I wrote this story close to 3 years ago and posted it as The Trip over at the DWG, but I had it removed because I wanted to rewrite it and possibly one day try to get it published. Well, I don't think I'll ever realize that publishing dream mainly because I don't think the story will sell and secondly because I'm nowhere near finished rewriting it. I have about 1/3 done and Janet suggested to me that if I posted my re-written parts that it would entice me to finish the rest. So I'm taking her advice. I hope you enjoy it.
"Would you hurry up Olivia. Put a little more bounce in your stride," Margaret Fiorentino peevishly ordered her sister as they ran down a long narrow corridor marked International Departures in Boston's Logan Airport. "We wouldn't be running for our lives if you hadn't gotten into that fender bender this morning."
"I didn't get into a fender bender," Olivia angrily retorted. No matter how many times she related the tale, no one believed she wasn't at fault being that her driving record was full of minor traffic violations. "I came out of the mall and when I went to the car, the back door was already slammed in. Believe me, Maggie, I didn't need nor want an accident today and it's not my fault that it took the cops over an hour to show up before I could make a police report. You'd think that with Dad being on the force, they would have moved once I told them my name, but they didn't. I had to sit on the hood and wait in the parking lot while I anxiously looked at my watch knowing you were waiting for me."
Olivia's truthful explanation made no difference to Maggie. Had her sister not gotten into an accident, Olivia would have found another way to be late, of this Maggie was certain. It was Olivia's nature to be tardy; she had been since the day she was born: ten days past due.
"You shouldn't have been at the mall today doing your last minute vacation shopping, anyway. Your suitcase should have already been zipped up like mine," Maggie reprimanded. "God Olivia, why can't you be organized? You know how I hate being late."
Tardiness was not something the nuns at St. Cecilia's tolerated well. For the five years she attended that all-girls secondary school, Maggie had been on her guard. She set two alarm clocks every morning just to make sure she would never be late. After a while, waking up at six-thirty became a habit and her own internal clock would rouse her from her sleep.
Even now, some four years after leaving that convent-like environment, with its daily prayers, stuffy green uniforms and strict moral code, she could still see Sister Agatha's stern face greeting her at the principal's office whenever she had the audacity be late. It didn't matter to the nuns that there had been a huge snowstorm and that the city buses were running behind schedule. As an attendant of St. Cecilia's, she was supposed to show resolution and earnestness in getting to school on time, no matter what the circumstances.
What would Sister Agatha think now as she only had ten minutes to catch her flight to Italy, Maggie wondered.
Maggie picked up her pace and began running faster. Her sister sluggishly tried to keep up while her knapsack rocked side to side against her back.
"If we miss our flight then we'll miss the tour organizer in Rome and then how are we going to get to the hotel? I don't want to have to take a cab there, they'll definitely overcharge two girls who can barely speak Italian."
"Speak for yourself Maggie, my Italian is fine."
"Oh I stand corrected. They'll overcharge me not you," Maggie good-humoredly chided herself.
Even though her parents told Maggie her Italian was as just good as her older sister's, she knew they were lying. In her opinion, it was barely passable and sometimes close to embarrassing. She struggled with the verb tenses and hated having to be conscious of whether nouns were of masculine or feminine origin. ‘Why can't there be a neuter like there is in English?' she used to ask her Italian teacher, ‘it's so much easier'.
Olivia felt the heaviness of her backpack increase the longer she was running. "What gate number is it again?"
Maggie pulled her boarding pass out of her Levi's pocket. "Forty-three. Come on Olivia! Run!" she yelled as she saw her sister slow down to catch her breath.
"I am! Stop shouting at me!" Olivia growled back, irked by her sister's orders. "God! We haven't even left home yet and we're already fighting."
"Fighting? This isn't fighting," Maggie giggled.
"What are you laughing at?"
"I don't know, this just reminds me of that Seinfeld episode when Jerry and Elaine we're trying to catch a plane. I was cracking up because I thought of you."
"You laugh at anything Maggie."
"I know I do. But you have to admit, that episode was funny, especially the way Elaine suffered in coach."
"Well I don't think it'll be that bad for us, Alitalia is a good airline. I don't think we'll suffer too much."
"Anything will be better than Air Transat last year. Do you remember? God, I thought I would die. It was so hot on that plane, and those seats?! They were so snug," she shrieked in remembrance. "I'm just happy we didn't plan this trip through the university. They might give student discounts and lower rates, but the accommodations were awful. I just hope we have better weather than we did in Paris."
"I don't think we'll have that problem now. It's August and Italy's extremely hot in the summer."
Maggie halted, catching Olivia off guard. "Oh wow!"
She stood mesmerized, soaking in the sight of the huge 747 on the tar pit. "I still can't believe it, Olivia. A tour of Italy and then a visit to Aunt Loretta's for a week in Ischia. Pinch me!"
The magnificence of the plane left Olivia speechless. She quickly darted her eyes from the grand steel wings to her sister's countenance, noticing the breadth of the smile gliding across her face.
For as long as she could remember, this had always been Maggie's dream. All she ever talked about was visiting Italy. Even though they had toured Paris together last year, Maggie still had wanted to go to Italy instead. Only because of time restraints did they choose to visit the French capital over the wonders if Italy. Now, after years of dreaming, her wish was finally coming true.
"Maggie, are you going to stand here all day and just stare at the plane or do you actually want to get on it? We have to move. It takes off in ten minutes."
"Sorry. Let's move, let's move." She resumed her sprint to the gate. "You have your boarding pass, right Olivia?"
She waved the ticket in the air. "In my hand Maggie."
"Great. Italy here we come!"
Frederick Thornton carelessly lowered the shade on his first-class window seat, sighing heavily when it remained lodged halfway. He really didn't want to be on this Concorde flight from London to Rome.
It was too soon to take a vacation and leave his newly held position as President of Thornton Press. He shouldn't have listened to his friend. He should have listened to his instincts and remained in London. Now was not the time to be jetting off to Italy, not with the company's big relocation to New York only a few months away. "I don't know why I let you talk me into this David."
David Webb pulled out the earphones from his ears. "Because you were wasting away in the big, lonely house of yours, wallowing in your misery. You needed to get out and live again and what better place than Italy!"
"What do you mean live again? I live."
"You don't live, you exist. Working fourteen hours a day and going home to your empty house is hardly living. Ever since your father died and you took over his position, you've been living like a hermit. I certainly never expected to see my best friend, Frederick Harrison Thornton, who partied until there was no tomorrow at Oxford and always had a girl on his arm and in his bed, live like a Franciscan monk."
"I am hardly monk-like material."
"You weren't in the past but I can't remember the last time you went out with a woman."
"What are you talking about? Just last week I went out with that model."
"And what happened?"
"Because she bored me. They all bore me. They might be the most beautiful women on earth but they have the personality of a gnat. I just don't have the patience to listen to them go on and on about their photo sessions and their mundane superficial lives anymore."
Was this his friend sitting next to him? Was this the Frederick Thornton he had known since their schooldays in Eton? He certainly looked the same with his dark wavy hair, immaculate attire and rugged good-looks, but the old Freddie couldn't have cared less if the women he went out with had a brain the size of a pea. As long as they were tall, blond and reeked with sensuality, they met his requirements.
The man in the seat next to him was now suddenly interested in personality and stimulating conversation. David never would have expected it.
David noticed that his friend had remarkably changed since his father's death. Frederick was no longer the carefree, reckless playboy who the London gossip editors had consistently placed at the top of their most eligible bachelors list. Instead, Frederick had transformed himself into a serious, responsible executive wanting to prove to everyone that he was capable of keeping the dynasty of Thornton Press bustling and ongoing, just like his father.
With a quick glance out at the high-peaks of the Italian Alps, Frederick heavily sighed. "I shouldn't have left Andrea alone. She's too young to be by herself."
"Andrea will be fine Freddie, relax a bit. She's not alone. Your housekeeper's going to watch over her. Nothing's going to happen in the two weeks you're away from your sister."
David had never met anyone who was so protective of his sister the way Freddie was of Andrea. He felt a tad guilty that he didn't have that same type of feeling towards his own sister Constance, but Constance made it difficult for anyone to feel anything but dislike for her. Had she not been related to him, David would have had nothing to do with her. She was one of the most selfish, conceited, vain persons he'd ever known.
David's thoughts quickly leapt from his sister to the attractive blond flight attendant pushing the drink cart in their direction. He hadn't felt thirsty before, but now he instantly had the urge for a refreshment and perhaps something more. His friend might have changed his ways, but he hadn't.
"Would you care for something to drink, sir?" she asked David in a tempting voice.
Frederick may have been positioned as the third greatest catch in all of England, but David, with his charming personality and equally charming bank account was not far behind at number seven.
"Yes, a brandy," he replied while his wandering eye studiously examined her form, nicely outlined by the dark green uniform.
"And you sir?" she asked Frederick while keeping her gaze fixed on David's soft blue eyes.
Frederick just rolled his eyes. It never failed. David always attracted women with his pleasing manners and alluring smile. "The same," he answered in an exacerbated tone.
Once the drinks had been rendered and the stewardess covertly wrote her phone number on David's napkin, David turned towards his friend. "She's quite beautiful, wouldn't you say?"
Frederick lifted his glass to his lips. "I suppose so."
"You suppose so? Good God Freddie! Didn't you get a look at her?"
"I did, David. But you're too quick to fall for every beautiful woman you meet. You'd better be on your guard, I'm sure she'd only be out for your money anyway," he said resigned.
"How can you say that?"
"Because any woman who sees a man in first-class with no wedding ring on immediately assumes that he's rich and ready to be snared up."
David gave his friend a quizzical smile. "You're so cynical!"
"I'm not cynical David, I'm realistic. Every woman I've ever gone out with has looked at my fortune first and then me. When they see me, they see the luxurious mansion I live in, the black Porsche in my driveway, and the twenty-four carat diamond ring they want me to put on their finger."
"Yes every woman," he sighed. "Well, at least those in my circle do."
"Well maybe you'll meet a woman on this trip who won't be impressed with any of that."
Frederick ruefully chuckled. "Good one, David. Good one!" he replied before putting on his earphones and turning his attention to the movie: A Room with A View.
When they reached room 425 of The Central Park Hotel, Maggie nervously slipped the key into the lock, and held her breath as she turned the knob. Nothing made her more panicky than the few excruciating seconds she waited before opening up a hotel room door for the first time.
The Fiorentino sisters fretted about the Italian amenities they would find on their economy tour after the Parisian accommodations debacle they experienced last year. The girls glanced at each other anxiously before Maggie opened the door, slowly.
What they saw, after the door had been ajar for only a moment, amazed them. Never did they expect such a sight.
"My God!" Olivia cried, dragging her suitcase in the room.
"Incredible!" Maggie echoed as her eyes tentatively devoured the opulence of the chamber. She took a moment, and moved to the center of the room, feasting on the unexpected grandeur it offered.
Olivia sat on one of the twin beds, feeling the rigidity of the mattress with her hand. "Perfect. This is exactly how I like my mattress. Not too soft and not too hard, just right." She lay back, stretching her tired body on the green comforter while her eyes traveled the length of the chamber. "My goodness Maggie, I never ever expected our room to be so huge. It's at least five times bigger than our Paris hotel room."
Maggie rolled her eyes at the remembrance of that dinky room. "My bedroom closet at home was bigger than our Paris hotel room, Olivia," she sarcastically answered. "I could only open the door half-way before it hit the bed," she said with a chuckle when recalling her five night stay at l'Hotel Victoria in the Montmartre district of Paris.
"You're laughing now, but as I recall you weren't laughing then. You wanted to go back home, you were so upset with our accommodations."
"I had every reason to be upset. It was our first European trip and they overcharged us for our room. We could have gotten a first-class suite back home with the money we spent there," she said with conviction. "But not only that, I came home with bruises on my legs after bumping into the bed frame so many times. There was absolutely no place to walk in that pint-sized dump."
"Well, the hotel room doesn't really matter anyway. It's only a place to sleep," Olivia rationalized with a yawn.
Maggie walked over to the window and drew open the gauzy white curtains, gasping at the view before her. "Olivia look! There's a balcony!" she said shocked at this surprising feature.
Swiftly, she unlocked the sliding door and stepped outside on the long, narrow balcony. She leaned over the edge of the railing and looked down on the quiet street below.
When her sister joined her to observe the vista, Maggie pulled her dark hair back, and let the golden rays of the blistering Roman sun scorch her fair skin.
"Isn't that St. Peter's Basilica?" Olivia asked.
Maggie opened her eyes and searched for the famous Roman landmark. "Where?"
Olivia pointed to a small dome, considerably hidden by cypress trees. "Over there, can't you see it? I know we're not in Rome itself, so it's pretty far, but try squinting your eyes a bit."
Maggie followed her sister's directions, keenly looking for the Vatican. She stretched her five-foot-five-inch body to her tiptoes trying to see above the trees. "I think you're right."
"Isn't it beautiful, Maggie? We've only been here a few hours, but already I'm in love with Italy."
"I know what you mean. It is breath taking. But maybe, your love for Italy has something more to do with the fact that it's besieged with gorgeous men. Did you get a look at the bellhop who carried my bag? I swear, he looked exactly like that model in those Calvin Klein ads."
"That's who he reminded me of!" Olivia excitedly said. "His dimples were exactly the same, and his muscles, Maggie. They looked so powerful."
"They have to be to lift up your suitcase."
Olivia took offense to her sister's remark about her packing. "It's not that heavy."
"Olivia, Dad almost put his back out trying to load your suitcase in the trunk. What do you have in there, anyway?"
"Everything I need to survive for three weeks away from home. Ten pairs of shoes, six handbags..."
"Ten pairs of shoes?" Maggie screeched. "Are you crazy? All you need are a pair of Reeboks, she said pointing to her feet, "nice dress shoes and a pair of sandals."
"I'm not like you Maggie, I need variety to chose from. I can't live with just a few pairs."
No two people were more dissimilar in their styles and in their thinking than the Fiorentino sisters. Where Maggie was prompt, simple in dress, and sometimes too direct in her opinions, Olivia was tardy, more elaborate with her attire and very diplomatic in her responses.
Even with these differences, the girls had developed an unbreakable bond that many people envied, especially their younger sister, Nadia. She felt left out whenever her two older siblings would go shopping together, see movies together and vacation together. The only time she wouldn't feel jealous was when they were fighting, which was often. Not a day seemed to go by without some little argument over stupidities erupting in the Fiorentino cottage.
But even in their arguments, there was such an underlying respect and adoration for each other that neither sister would say anything too hurtful to the other.
"What time is it?"
Maggie glanced at her watch. "1 o'clock."
"We have a couple of hours before we meet our guide and the other members of our tour downstairs. How about we go get a bite to eat after I take a shower. I'm starving."
"Sure. I'll just watch some TV and lie down a bit. Flying always tires me out."
Maggie walked back in their room and turned on the television. She settled herself comfortably on her stomach on the bed, and impatiently clicked the remote until a recognizable face appeared.
As much as she loved touring abroad, she needed to see a familiar American celebrity on TV to steady the nerves that fluttered in her body from the little bit of homesickness she felt upon arriving in a new country.
She was vigorously switching channels when her eyes did a double take and stopped on a music video on MTV's European station.
Frederick's jaw dropped when he opened the door to room 427. He quickly shifted his brooding eyes to his friend, who cavalierly smiled back.
"Is this a joke?" he asked in a grim tone.
"No, this is our room," David cheerfully replied as he strode into the chamber.
"You can't be serious."
"David, this room is ridiculously small and not to mention ugly."
"It's not that bad Freddie. Actually, it's pretty big for the tour we're on."
A shiver coursed through Frederick's body. He knew there was more to this trip than his friend was letting on. David always had an unconventional way of bestowing unwanted surprises on him.
Reluctantly, he paraded in and closed the door behind him, eyeing his friend venomously. "What do you mean, ‘the tour we're on'? What kind of tour are we on?"
David jumped on his bed and lounged back restfully, sighing affably when his blond hair hit the pillow. "An economy tour," he said with a certain mischievous smirk in his voice.
Economy. A word never uttered in the Thornton household.
"An economy tour?" Frederick stated astoundingly as he sharply threw his jacket in David's face. "What are we doing on an economy tour, David? When you pushed me to take a vacation and leave my work behind, you painted an elaborate, luxurious, first-class picture, not the riffraff surroundings I presently find myself in."
"I only painted what I heard, and what I heard was fantastic."
"What the hell are you talking about?"
David sat up and threw the coat back in his friend's face. "It's actually quite funny Freddie. We weren't supposed to be here, we were supposed to be on the first-class Best of Italy Tour, but I got my wires crossed with my secretary. She took the economy version of this tour and when she came back from her holiday a month ago, she went on and on about the terrific time she had, the great people she met and the beautiful places she visited. She had me so engrossed with her stories that I thought it would be fun if we did the same thing, so I had her book us on the tour. The only thing was I never thought of being specific about the accommodations. She gave me a weird look when I told her to go ahead and book us, but I thought she had indigestion at the time because we were eating gazpacho together. Looking back, I think she must have thought me crazy. But so what?! It'll be fun to explore Italy with regular, hard-working people on a bus."
"Did you say bus?"
"Yeah. How else did you think we'd be touring around the country?"
"I don't know. Maybe in a limo, a jet or a yacht!"
"Think smaller scale Freddie. Normal people don't fly around in jets or cruise on a yacht. They travel by bus." He saw his friend's scowl harden. "Come on Freddie! It's not that bad, it's just not what you're used to. That's all."
"You can say that again. For heaven's sakes David, we're not even in Rome itself," Frederick scolded as he rushed to the balcony and feverishly slid the door open. He stood outside, glaring his eyes at the view. "Is that supposed to be St. Peter's I'm looking at over there? Huh? Is it David? I can't tell, I need binoculars to decipher it."
"You'll see it tomorrow. What's the big deal anyway? It's not the end of the world to be in a hotel on the outskirts of Rome, Freddie. God, you sound like Constance, more and more each day."
Frederick flinched when he heard the name Constance. A perfect name for a woman who had been a constant annoyance to him ever since he met her over fifteen years ago.
David's younger sister endlessly hovered over Frederick whenever he had the misfortune of being in her company. Nothing about the woman appealed to him. Some might regard her as attractive, with her ash blond hair, hazel eyes and thin form, but her catty personality and snotty temperament left him cold.
He never knew what he did to be in her good graces, except perhaps have a fortune a few times greater than her brother's. He just wished she would seek the attentions of another, and erase the unfathomable assumption from her mind that he would one day wed her.
"I do not sound like Constance," Frederick snapped from outside.
"Yes you do. Both of you are so socially conscious and hooked on image that it's almost sickening. I am perfectly happy here," David said lying down with his hands behind his head and his legs crossed at the ankles. "I don't need so much grandeur to be comfortable."
Frederick sauntered back inside the wood-paneled room. His six-foot frame angrily stopped and towered over his friend's bed. "I'm accustomed to lavish hotels when I travel, David and you led me to believe that we would be staying at the Ritz or something, not in this pint-sized dump!"
Freddie's eyes zeroed in on the cramped quarters that would serve as his sleeping area. "I can't believe this, you expect me to sleep in a twin bed? I've never slept in a twin bed in my life, not even as a child."
David just closed his eyes and blocked out his friend's ramblings. Personally, he was looking forward to the simplicity of the tour and the familial ambiance Irene had raved about. His secretary had made lifelong friends on her vacation and he was hoping to have the same success. He needed a change from the pomposity of his real family and friends and thought that Freddie would benefit from a different circle as well.
"What's that?" Frederick asked in an irked voice.
David listened attentively to the muttered noise blaring into their room. His concentration was soon claimed by the music and his body instinctively moved to the beat of the song. "It's that Spanish song your sister was listening to when I picked you up."
Suddenly, David found himself singing along to words he didn't understand.
"Where's it coming from?"
"I think it's from the room next door."
Frederick grimaced. "You see? You see? We're not here five minutes and already there's utter disrespect and no consideration for the rights of others. That's why I prefer expensive hotels. There's no way this sort of behavior would be acceptable at the Ritz." The longer the music blasted, the quicker Freddie's temper flared. "How are people supposed to sleep with music blaring in their ears?"
"Freddie, it's lunch time. Nobody's sleeping now."
"That's not the point and you know it." Freddie balled his fists while staring at the wall dividing the two rooms. "What kind of people are staying in this so-called hotel anyway?"
"Would you loosen up a bit Freddie!" David shouted. "I never thought that staying in a less-than-five-star hotel would get you so upset and make you so edgy." David got up and walked to the door, turning the knob abruptly. "The problem, which is not really a problem, is very easily remedied. I'll just go ask them to lower the volume," he said with gritted teeth as he slammed the door, irked by his friend's petulant mood.
When David returned to his room, he donned a countenance entirely opposite to the one he had no more than five minutes before. Serenity now claimed his entire body. He leaned back against the frame and stared wide-eyed, in oblivion, thinking about the unexpected beauty in the chamber next door. "I'm in love," he sighed deeply.
Frederick shook his head and let out a hearty breath. David falling in love with a woman had become a daily ritual, sometimes twice daily. "Again?"
"Freddie, she's the most beautiful woman I've ever seen."
David's amorous avowals no longer phased Freddie. "How many times have I heard you say that before? Just a few hours ago you said the same thing about the stewardess."
"No, I really mean it this time," he persuaded. "That stewardess was nothing compared to this wonderful ideal of female anatomy."
David seated himself on his bed across from Freddie. Frederick noticed that David's eyes seemed to be bouncing as he spoke. "If you had only seen her Freddie. Such beautiful, clear skin, gorgeous flowing dirty-blond hair, a lovely smile, perfect teeth..."
"Perfect teeth! Well, by all means let's get a priest in here right now ."
"Stop teasing me. She's absolutely exquisite. She's the one. I know it. I feel it."
"Really?" That's what he had said about the pin-up model he dated three weeks ago, Frederick mused. "What's her name?"
A dumbfounded, perplexed look came across David's face. He slightly laughed. "You know, I don't know. I was so caught up in seeing her in that form-fitting towel that I didn't even ask her."
"Yeah, she had just come out of the shower."
"Well that explains it all. You're not in love, you're in lust! Don't you know the difference anymore?"
"No, it wasn't lust...well, maybe it was a little...but there was something else. I could kiss Irene right now for booking us in this crappy room."
"You admit it then. This place is horrible," Frederick yelled triumphantly. "I'm not going out of my mind from the darkness of the wood-paneling or the blaring music."
"So it's bad. I don't care. I'm a wall away from the girl of my dreams. But the best thing is, she and her sister are on the tour with us."
"Yeah. She was the one blasting the music. Apparently she needs to see a familiar face on TV to calm her nerves or something but I don't think it was working because she was vomiting in the bathroom when I was there."
The "Fasten Your Seatbelt" sign flickered, warning the passengers to prepare for their descent to Leonardo Da Vinci Airport. Phoebe Newland pressed the silver button on the armrest to bring her seat to the mandatory upright position and locked her tray back into place.
She pulled her auburn hair behind her ears after removing her earphones and anxiously waited for the landing to begin. This was an unexpected but welcomed trip to Italy. She hadn't visited her favorite vacation spot in the two years since her husband's death and in her opinion that was just far too long. She had grieved for Richard much longer than she wanted to, but propriety called for a substantial grace period before entering into society again and Phoebe believed that she had unequivocally surpassed hers.
She was far too young to be cooped up in that lonely mansion of hers, pretending to mourn a man she never loved and only married to save her own family from financial ruin. She had done her duty. She had saved her family and now it was time to save herself.
To live again.
When her longtime friend had asked her to join her on this unusual escapade to Italy, she jumped at the chance. She longed to be in the country that had captured her heart ten years earlier at the age of seventeen. Memories of that unforgettable summer swarmed in her mind the minute she boarded the plane and continued for the entire flight making her long for another Italian stud to please her the way Vito the stable hand had a decade ago.
She was totally immersed in the memory of her days in his embrace when her friend broke her reverie.
"Do you really think this is a good idea, Phoebe?"
Phoebe graciously turned toward her best friend and took Constance's svelte hand in hers. She looked directly into Constance's hazel eyes and lied. "Of course it is. How else do you expect Frederick to realize he's in love with you?" Phoebe said, even though she knew that Frederick had entirely opposite feelings for her friend. "You've given him plenty of time to grieve his father's passing and his break-up with his girlfriend and now's the perfect opportunity to literally charm his pants off. He'll be in a relaxed mood and in the perfect setting to fall in love with you.
"It will, however, be a bit of a tedious task for you since you don't love the man, but certainly it isn't a chore to flatter a man as handsome as Frederick. A chore was having to flatter someone like my Richard, that fat, hairy, toothless old bastard."
"No, it's not a chore Phoebe. I don't care that I don't love him," Constance stated with shrugged shoulders. "I don't need to love him to want to be Mrs. Frederick Thornton. The prestige and glamour of being his wife, and not to mention the tremendous fortune, is compensation enough for the lack of affection I have for him. I'm just uncomfortable traveling on a tour, with commoners, on a bus. Goodness Phoebe, we're used to yachts and limousines and now we're reduced to the lowliness of a bus! It's so beneath us."
"Yes, that's true," Phoebe admitted, "but let's regard this trip as an adventure on the other side of the tracks. It should be fun to see how peasantry travel abroad. I'm sure there will be lots of North Americans making fools of themselves. We'll be getting a few chuckles out of it!"
"I suppose you're right, Phoebe," Constance conceded with a sigh. "But after this demeaning spectacle, I expect to see a twenty-four carat diamond on my finger."
"You will Constance, I guarantee it."
"Maggie, maybe you should stay upstairs and rest a bit. You really don't need to come to the information session. I can go and tell you everything."
"I'm fine, Olivia. Don't worry," Maggie said as she locked her hotel room door. "I think that pastry I had at the airport just upset me a little. It was probably out for too long. I shouldn't have eaten it, but you know me, every time I see a sweet I have to have one."
"If you're sure?"
"I'm sure. Come on, it's supposed to start soon."
The two girls descended the staircase, turned right at the lobby, passing the mustached desk clerk and marched down a long hallway until reaching the assigned room at the back of the hotel.
Inside, at the front of the room, behind a large table sat their tour guide; a young Milanese university student named Paola Strada. She greeted them with a warm smile and motioned for them to take a seat on any one of the four rows of folded chairs. The girls had their choice of place to choose from, as no more than ten other tourists waited for the meeting to begin.
"I thought there'd be more people on our tour than this," Maggie commented as she plunked herself down on a chair near the back.
"Some people are still flying in. The tour doesn't officially start until tomorrow even though there are some optional excursions tonight," answered a pretty, dark-haired woman in the row in front of them. She extended her hand and introduced herself as Carly, preferring to use the Americanized version of her name rather than her true calling card of Carlotta Pasqua. She had never liked the name that had been bestowed to her at birth by her Italian parents, and had actually come to despise it even more after seeing the musical The Phantom of the Opera.
When she looked through the Playbill and noticed that one of the characters shared her name, for the first time in her life feelings of pride and joy charged through her veins. Never before had she seen a character, whether on television, on film or on the stage with her name. But her happiness quickly dissipated when the actress appeared from behind the red curtain. Carly never expected to see her one-and-only namesake as an overweight, spiteful soprano singer who thwarts with the leading lady.
Ever since that day, everyone around her, except her parents, was cautioned to call her Carly.
Both Maggie and Olivia were immediately charmed by Carly's openness and engaging personality. In a manner of minutes, she informed them that she was from Vancouver and had come on the tour with her entire family, including her younger brother Johnny and her hairdresser parents who decided after years of hard work to finally tour their homeland and visit relatives in Ischia as well.
As Carly rambled incessantly about her harrowing flight and stopover in London, where her luggage went missing not once, but twice, Maggie observed that Carly couldn't have been more than a couple of years older than her own twenty-one years. She believed Carly to be a typical first-generation Italian daughter like her; one who still lived at home until marriage and who respected and obeyed her parent's wishes.
The three girls were exchanging rudimentary biographical statistics, when Carly's lanky, side-burned-pony-tailed younger brother appeared.
Maggie scrutinized Johnny Pasqua thoroughly. For a guy who's parents own a barbershop, he sure could use a haircut! she mused. But as she traveled the length of his form, she soon conceded that behind all that hair he was a pretty good-looking guy. He had nice emerald eyes like his sister, and an equally charming smile. The only thing she objected to, was his jewelry.
She hated seeing Italian men with tons of gold around their necks. She never understood the fascination most of them seemed to have with it. In her opinion, it tended to cheapen them and make them appear unintelligent. She was just thankful her own father never wore anything but his wedding ring and watch.
"I thought you were going to stay upstairs with Mom and Dad," Carly said to her brother.
"I got bored clicking the remote on the same eight channels over and over again," he replied in a low, grumbling voice.
Maggie smiled. She too had gotten quickly tired of flipping on the same pathetic shows until her attention had been grabbed by one in particular. "Really? The naked women on channel two didn't interest you?" Maggie teased.
A combination of astonishment and disappointment washed over Johnny's face. "Naked women? What naked women? I didn't see any naked women."
"Just before we came down here there was a variety show with topless dancers on. You didn't see it?"
"No. I've been down here for a while. I was in the lobby talking to a couple of blokes."
"Oh?" Olivia said, pretending not to sound too interested.
"Yeah. I met this really fun guy on our tour, David Webb. He's got some hysterical jokes and he's very friendly, nothing at all like his stuffy friend."
"Friend?" probed an inquisitive Maggie.
Johnny pointed to the corner. "Yeah, the guy over there in the suit."
Maggie's eyes followed Johnny's finger to the dark, handsome man, rigidly standing in the corner with his arms folded across his chest. He seemed to be brooding; his brow was furrowed, marring his smooth forehead, and his magnetic eyes flickered as he took an exacerbated breath.
Maggie felt a nauseous twinge in her stomach when her brown eyes met his silken ones for a long, split-second. She wasn't sure if it was that damn canolli coming back to her again or a reaction to observing the sulking gentleman. He certainly was one of the most gorgeous men she'd ever seen in her life and she found herself starring at him long after he'd glanced away.
"Tell me, what guy do you know who comes on vacation dressed in a suit?" Johnny said laughing. "I mean, it sure looks expensive and everything, but this isn't the place for it. It's over 100° outside."
"But why did you say friend with a twinge of irony in your voice?" Olivia asked Johnny curiously.
"Can't you guess?"
Maggie glanced back at the two men. From the way David was placating his friend, with constant hand gestures and touches there seemed to be no doubt in Maggie's mind as to the true meaning of their relationship. She just wished she was wrong in her assessment, not for her sake but for Oilvia's. From the moment Maggie walked out of the bathroom, Olivia had been incessantly talking about David. She hadn't seen her sister so animated over a man in a long time and she felt horrible for having to impart her newly-realized knowledge about David and his friend to her sister but she felt it would be better for Olivia to learn the truth about David now before she got too attached.
"Olivia, what Johnny means is that David is more than a friend to his friend and that they're both gay," Maggie whispered.
"What? I don't believe that," Olivia cried incredulously. She didn't want to believe it. She had liked David from the moment she opened up the door and stared into his dashing sapphire eyes.
"Why don't you believe it?" Maggie asked. "Look at the facts, Olivia. Number one: they're not wearing wedding rings. Number two: they're handsome. Number three: they're about close to thirty. Number four and probably the biggest and most important sign of all: they're sharing a room together. Hello! It doesn't take a genius to figure it out!"
Johnny and Carly joined in Maggie's round of laughter while Olivia's ire brewed.
"It doesn't take long for gossip to start either, Maggie," Olivia retorted in an ominous tone.
"Oh, you just don't want to believe it because you like that David guy."
"You girls work quickly," Johnny smiled. "When did you get a chance to meet David?"
"It's a stupid story," Maggie said. "I was watching MTV and they were playing a video by this singer I recognized from General Hospital. I knew he could sing but never knew he had a CD out, so I raised the volume because I was really getting into the beat of the music. Apparently, I had the TV on too loudly and it was disturbing Mr. Suit over there," Maggie said with disdain, "so David came over and asked us to lower it and got quite an eyeful of Olivia in the process."
"Yeah. It's my fault actually. She had to answer the door in her towel while I was busy vomiting."
"Are you all right?" Carly asked with genuine concern. "I have some Gravol pills in my bag to settle your stomach, if you want." She picked up her straw handbag and searched for her anti-nausea tablets, taking out the copy of Tattletale the British tabloid she had picked up at Heathrow.
"I'm fine now. Thanks anyway. Olivia took good care of me. It's handy having a sister who's a nurse."
Carly put her magazine back in her bag when the two gentlemen in question came over to join in the little assembly that had formed.
"Hey David! I heard you got quite an eyeful of Olivia here!" Johnny said grinning, wishing he could have gotten a glimpse of the beautiful nursemaid as well.
Carly slapped her brother on the arm. "Shut up Johnny. You're embarrassing Olivia."
"Olivia, is it?" David inquired smoothly, taking Olivia's hand in his and lifting it to his lips.
Maggie felt somewhat faint from David's chivalrous act and she hadn't even been the recipient. Never in her life had she seen a man act so gallantly towards a woman during their introductions. She quickly gazed at Carly, who also looked like she was about to swoon from the unexpected romantic gesture.
"We didn't get a chance to properly introduce ourselves before. I'm David Webb," he said intensely gazing into Olivia's entranced eyes, "and this is my friend, Freddie."
David turned to Frederick, whose features immediately formed into a bloodthirsty frown. David knew that look. It could only mean one thing. He had committed the unpardonable sin of calling his friend Freddie, in public. Quickly, he realized his faux pas. "Sorry, this is Frederick Thornton." He pulled Olivia aside and in a not-so-hushed voice said, "He really hates the name Freddie and only lets me and his sister call him that."
"It's nice to meet you," Olivia replied with flushed cheeks. She shook Frederick's hand while absentmindedly staring at David.
Boy, Olivia has it bad! Maggie thought when she noticed her sister's bad manners. She shifted her eyes to Frederick, whose ill-humored reaction to Olivia's slight was quite evident.
"It seems our first encounter was quite unorthodox. It wouldn't have happened had my sister not gotten sick just as I was coming out of the shower."
David turned to Maggie and smiled. He never expected two sisters to look so differently. Olivia, dressed in khaki shorts, leather sandals, and white blouse, looked radiant with her blond hair cascading over her shoulders whereas Maggie, donned in ripped Levi's, huge running shoes and a blue T-shirt tucked in at the waist, looked more easygoing with her dark tresses pulled back with her butterfly hair clip.
From David's perspective, Olivia was definitely the more beautiful of the two, but Maggie had a winning smile and pleasing olive-shaped eyes that softened her grungier look.
She rose from her seat and outstretched her hand, shaking David's firmly. "Hi. I'm Maggie."
"I hope you're feeling..."
"You're the one with the loud music," Frederick interrupted, heedless of his friend's concern for Maggie's health. "Keep it lower from now on," he ordered in an intimidating growl. "Some of us prefer classics to rock, and at a softer intensity as well."
Maggie glanced at Frederick, incredulous at the man's impudence to admonish her so harshly and so loudly in front of everyone. What had she done to earn his ire? Listening to a music video a little too loudly, got him all in a huff? She didn't believe that was the reason. He was probably irked at something else and needed a way to vent out his anger and she was his chosen outlet.
Nothing in the world incensed her more than misdirected anger, especially when she was the recipient of someone else's censure.
Her eyes winced at him. He no longer shimmered with the bewitching spell he had cast on her when he stood in the corner, sulking. Now, he radiated haughtiness and disapproval, two attributes she hated in a person. She didn't care that he was drop-dead gorgeous. What he had in beauty, he lacked in social conduct. She tried to keep her bearings about her, and quell the fire that was burning in her body. She wanted to try to be more like Olivia; more diplomatic in her responses. So, with tremendous fortitude on her part, she clenched her teeth and said coolly, "I'm sorry. It didn't seem that loud to me. I'll try not to disturb your peace from now on."
"Not loud?" he replied in a huff. "I could barely hear myself think for goodness sakes! We all share the same accommodations. You should be more considerate of others and not regard this hotel as your home. Maybe where you come from this sort of behavior is acceptable, but I won't stand for it."
The burning had now engulfed her, dilating her pupils and scorching her sensitive stomach. He wasn't ‘going to stand for it'? Who the hell was he? What the hell made him so special?
Forget Olivia and her diplomacy! she thought. You're a straightforward, direct, no-nonsense kind of girl. If Mr. Suit doesn't like it, too bloody bad! She put her hands on her hips and furrowed her brow in anger.
Olivia knew that stance all too well. Maggie was ready to give a piece of her mind; an eloquent, no-holds-barred piece of her mind.
"Listen Freddie..." Maggie began acrimoniously.
Swiftly, Olivia placed herself behind her sister and covered Maggie's mouth with her hand, gagging her. "She understands you perfectly, Frederick," Olivia said nervously, struggling to keep her hand on her sister's lips as Maggie zealously tried to pull it off. "She won't do it again."
Frederick was actually looking forward to hearing what the dark-haired Fireball had to say. As soon as he heard the enraged intonation in "Freddie", he knew she would rip him to shreds. "Good," he replied victoriously, repressing the smile beginning to curl his lips. "If you will excuse me, I have a phone call to make."
Before turning his back on them, he gave Maggie a wink, infuriating her even more. He heard Maggie's muzzled groans try to break through her sister's hand as he left the room with a mischievous smirk on his face.
"I'll come with you, Freddie," David said, appalled by his friend's behavior.
Forcefully, Maggie tore herself from her sister's grasp, inhaling deeply from lack of air. "Olivia!" she yelled furiously, catching her breath. "What did you do that for?"
"Because I know you Margaret Fiorentino. You were about to tell him off in that not-so-subtle way of yours."
"You're damn right I was!"
"Maggie, we have to spend two weeks on the same tour with them. There's no point in making enemies the first day."
"He started it. Mr. High-and-Mighty got me upset and he had every right to know what I thought of his rude, unwarranted conduct. Who does he think he is scolding me like I'm a five year old?"
"He's Frederick Thornton!" Johnny replied in a mock English accent, trying to calm Maggie. It worked. She found herself chuckling, despite herself.
At the sound of Frederick's name, Carly gasped. She had been intensely observing him when he was reprimanding her newly made friend and was racking her brain trying to remember where she had seen or heard of him before. Now, it finally came to her.
She zipped open her purse and pulled out her Tattletale magazine, turning to an article entitled Britain's Sexiest Bachelors. Maggie, Olivia and Johnny all watched Carly curiously as she skimmed the paper.
When Carly found the paragraph she was looking for, she said matter-of-factly, "This Frederick Thornton is the third richest bachelor in England, and your David," she turned to Olivia, "is number seven."
"What?" the three echoed in disbelief as they hovered over Carly, each trying to read the feature.
The four stood huddled at the back of the room, their attention captivated by the paper. "Yeah, that's what it says in this tabloid anyway. I'm a real sucker for gossip," Carly candidly confessed. "But you can never really know for sure if what they're printing is the absolute truth, but it says right here that Freddie's the President and owner of Thornton Press, a huge publishing house," she read as her index finger traced the sentence. "Apparently, his father died a few months ago leaving him control of the company."
Everyone took a moment to register what Carly had just said. All stood quiet and dumbfounded at this unbelievable news until Johnny spoke. "Who's the looker in the photo?" His eyes had been ogling the beautiful blond in a low-cut ruby dress pictured on Frederick's arm.
"Christine Donovan," Carly replied. "His ex-girlfriend. It says that they broke up close to a year ago and that since then he's been seen around London with a different blond practically every night." She closed the magazine and looked at Maggie. "I don't think our Freddie is gay, folks. I think he's a gigolo."
Curious, Maggie grabbed the paper out of Carly's hands and read the article for herself. Her stomach began to flutter again when staring at his picture.
"A gigolo?" Johnny said excitedly, rubbing his hands together. "I've never met a rich, jet-set gigolo before. This should be an educational vacation."
Carly slapped her brother's arm again. "You're here to learn about Italy, not get pointers from a playboy. I've told you this before, Giovanni, you treat women with respect, you don't demean them."
"Yeah, yeah... stop lecturing me Carlotta," he sighed, tired of his sister's constant instructions. "There's just one thing I can't figure out. If these guys are so rich, what are they doing on an economy tour vacationing with regular Joe Blows like us?"
"Good question. It seems kind of weird," Olivia said.
"I don't care what the reason is, or how much money these guys have," Maggie declared with resolve in her voice, "Freddie's a first-class jerk!"
Gripping a Marlboro between his nicotine-stained fingers, Pino Scaramuzza adjusted his dark shades to shield his eyes from the setting sun. He stood by the opened motor coach door and anxiously waited for the remaining passengers to board his bus.
The first night of a tour always excited him, even after fifteen years of chauffeuring across his country. He never tired of seeing the smiles on most of his passenger's faces as he drove them around the wondrous sights of the Eternal City.
He especially loved the smiles he received from the female members of the tour as he extended his hand to help them board or descend the bus at every single stop. He wasn't obliged to be so courteous, but it afforded him the perfect opportunity to examine their shapely figures and determine which lucky woman he would charm into being his companion for the duration of the tour.
He helped them file on the bus one by one and kept a mental checklist of his favorites. He usually settled for one woman during the tour, but he thought it best to make an exception this time. There was no reason why he couldn't break his cardinal rule and fraternize with more than one passenger.
No reason at all.
When Maggie graciously accepted Pino's hand to embark, she was utterly oblivious to his leering and lascivious musings. Her mind had been consumed solely by incessant thoughts of Frederick.
Negative, disapproving thoughts.
When she saw Freddie seated in the middle of the bus, staring out the window, she resolved to walk to the back with her eyes on anyone but him; she didn't want to give him any hint of the anger crushing inside her. So with her head held high, she sauntered passed him with an air of complete indifference in her demeanor while her insides were still seething from his reproach.
From the moment Freddie left the information session, Maggie resolved to ignore him for the entirety of the tour and put him out of her mind for good. But as much as she tried, she soon realized that she could not, not think about him.
In fact, once she returned to her room after the meeting, she furiously wrote all about him in her journal. Her diary was supposed to be a chronicle of her Italian holiday, but it quickly turned into an account of her confrontation with the "gorgeous jerk".
She had promised herself in her diary that she would not give him a fortuitous glance while on the coach, but the minute she sat in her seat and leaned her head back against the headrest, she immediately swayed her eyes in his direction.
She noticed that he had changed his clothing and that he was no longer wearing his expensive gray suit. Instead, he appeared to be donning more casual attire. From her position she could only see his white shirt and she tried with inconspicuous glances to make out what else he was wearing when her attention was seized by the arrival of two women who sat down only after cautiously placing handkerchiefs on their seats.
"Man, what is this? More rich folks?" Johnny said, observing the repulsed expressions of the two women as their eyes scouted the unfamiliar surroundings. "What were they expecting when they booked themselves on an economy tour?"
"Just ignore them. What do you care what they think?"
"I care Carly, because they make it seem as if it's criminal to be on a bus. Did you see their faces?"
"I did, but don't pay any attention to them. David said his sister's repulsed..."
"His sister? Which one's his sister," Olivia interrupted.
"The blond with the long nose. Her name is Constance and the other's her friend Phoebe."
"How do you know who they are? Maggie asked.
"My sister knows everybody's business. She's so nosy."
"I am not."
Johnny looked as his sister skeptically. She may have wanted to downplay her interest in other people's affairs, but he knew the truth. She loved to babble about others. "Carly, we've been here exactly five hours and already you know that that psychologist from New York is a lesbian looking for a partner on the tour, that that Australian couple is trying to save their marriage and that Pino's a real ladies man and divorced with a son."
"Paola told me," Carly defensively answered back. "I don't go seeking information, but if people want to gossip I'm not going to tell them to stop." She hunched over her armrest and whispered quietly to Maggie, who was sitting across from her. "Apparently, Constance has a thing for Freddie. David told me that his sister unexpectedly showed up on tour to try to convince Freddie to marry her."
"Really?" Maggie said fascinated. She too had to admit that she loved gossiping as much as Carly. "But why would she want to marry Freddie?"
"Maggie, have you looked at the man?" Carly said dryly.
"So what if he's good-looking? He's still a jerk," Maggie angrily replied, not to Carly's great surprise.
Carly too would have been incensed had Frederick been as rude and as abrupt to her, but contrary to Maggie Carly would have soon forgotten the incident and forgiven Frederick as well. "Maybe he was just in a bad mood this afternoon, Maggie. We all have our moments."
"That's not an excuse. When I'm upset, I take it out with the right person, I don't chew somebody else's head off. The music wasn't that loud."
Maggie's eyes flashed toward Frederick who was still gazing out the window. She wondered how he felt about Constance. There had been no mention of her in the tabloid article. "Do you think he loves her?"
Carly shook her head. "I doubt it. Before we boarded, he kept as far a distance from her as possible. I don't think he's too pleased that she showed up here."
Frederick wasn't pleased, he was livid. When he opened the door thinking it was room service and saw Constance instead, all of his muscles in his body involuntarily tightened. He knew Constance's real reason for coming to Italy wasn't to visit the country, but to seduce him. The Constance he knew would never subjugate herself to horrid travel conditions and, God forbid, commoners, unless she had another motive in mind: to be Mrs. Frederick Thornton.
It wasn't as if Constance was starving for wealth. She had a sizable fortune of her own. She didn't need his money. She loved celebrity and fame, and being married to him would bring her even more notoriety and status. But he didn't want to be married to a person he didn't love just for the sake of position.
Constance's appearance in Rome irritated him even more than the gloomy amenities and the blasting music and the thought of her constant hovering for the next fortnight made his blood clot.
So far, this trip was turning into a horrible getaway instead of the entertaining escapade David that had promised. Frederick just hoped that his circumstances would better and his vacation would quickly turn into a cheerful memory and change from its current dour state.
A carefree hour at Piazza Navona, the elliptical square smothered in the bustling noise and traffic of downtown Rome, was the first excursion for the passengers of tour 6550.
At the center of the piazza, the exquisite fountain of four encircling river gods, known as the Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi, instantaneously commanded everyone's attention, especially Maggie's. As an art history major at Boston College, she immediately recognized the Baroque style of Italian sculptor Giovanni Bernini.
She reached in her backpack for her camera and snapped the fountain from every single angle, subconsciously including Freddie in many of her shots. As he walked away from the group, down to the Church of Sant'Agnese in Agone, she inadvertently zoomed in on Freddie's backside and stared through her lens.
"Nice form," Carly remarked.
"I'll say," Maggie inadvertently sighed, watching the bounce of Frederick's luscious stride. She had never been one to gawk before, but she found herself intensely observing the man she cursed in her diary.
"Too bad it's marble."
"What?" Maggie cried, putting her camera down swiftly.
Carly smiled as she observed Maggie's agitated behavior. The fountain of the Four Rivers. The God of the Ganges river has a nice, chiseled form. Who did you think I was talking about?"
Maggie nervously chewed on her bottom lip. "Nobody," she answered while her eyes pointed in Frederick's direction.
Carly followed Maggie's gaze. "You thought I was talking about Freddie?"
Maggie shook her head.
"Yes you did. I can see it in your face, you're blushing."
"I am not. I don't blush," Maggie replied firmly, hands on hips.
"Then how come you have a rosy glow to you?"
Maggie took a moment to think of a believable excuse. She hated the fact that she had blushed when looking at Freddie. She didn't understand why she was blushing in the first place. It wasn't as if she liked the man, she despised him. "I get that way when I'm hungry. Come on, I'll treat you to an ice cream. I'm dying for Italian gelato."
"But we're going to eat soon," Carly protested as Maggie dragged her to the gelateria.
"Not for another hour at least. We still have to visit the Trevi Fountain first."
The girls ordered five scoops, each wanting to savor as many Italian flavors as possible. Carly prudently chose flavors without traces of nuts or licorice; she hadn't had an allergic reaction in years and she wanted her streak to continue indefinitely.
They settled themselves comfortably on the flanks of the Fountain of the Moor and watched both Italians and tourists alike meander in the square. It came as no surprise to Carly when she saw her brother diligently sit for a caricature of himself while hoards of people stood around the artist, laughing at Johnny's picture. Neither Maggie nor Carly wanted to be the object of other's ridicule, but Johnny didn't seem to mind. He actually reveled in it.
"So what do you think?" he said ten minutes later, proudly showing off his drawing. "Does it look like me?"
Carly took the picture in her hands and burst out laughing. "You're all head and no body."
"I know, isn't it cool? I'm going to show it to Dinah."
"Who's Dinah?" Maggie asked.
"You didn't see Dinah?" Johnny cried in shock. "How could you have missed her, Maggie?"
"Her eyes were otherwise engaged," Carly kidded, gently poking Maggie in the ribs. "Dinah Clarke's the buxom redhead who's got all the guys on our tour panting, except for David of course. Your sister's got his full attention."
"Where is she?"
"Over by the church, talking to Freddie."
Maggie looked over her shoulder and saw a scantily dressed, but extremely endowed woman coo all over Frederick. From Maggie's perspective, Frederick seemed to be enjoying the attention from the scarlet coquette. When Dinah ran her fingers through his dark hair, she saw him smile for the first time, revealing straight white teeth and a dimple on his left cheek. "Looks more like flirting," Maggie said bitterly, biting off a piece of her ice cream cone.
Dinah's openly licentious body language gave no doubt of what she was willing to do to make Frederick's vacation a more pleasant experience. Maggie finally turned away disgusted when she saw Dinah whisper something undoubtedly crude in Frederick's ear and resumed eating her ice cream as a jealous-like sensation overtook her body.
"I can't believe Mr. Suit turned her down," Johnny cried in surprise. "He must really be in a bad mood."
Maggie swiftly pivoted around to witness Frederick enter the church alone and see Dinah head in the opposite direction in the square. For some strange reason, she felt happy that he seemed to not have taken up on Dinah's offer.
"But why would he do that? Isn't he supposed to be out for a good time?" she wondered aloud.
"She's not blond, remember? The article said he goes for light-haired girls," Johnny said.
"Oh, right," Maggie remarked, a bit dismayed by the not-so-new news.
"I guess that means both you girls are safe from the prowlings of Frederick Thornton," Johnny joked.
"That's fine by me," Carly replied. "He's not my type anyway."
"Me either," Maggie lied. "Me either."
A quick pit stop at the most famous of all Roman fountains, Trevi, was next on the itinerary. Carly, Johnny, Maggie, Olivia, David and Dinah, all stood next to each other with their backs to the fountain, and, one after another, pitched a coin over their shoulder into the awaiting turquoise water. Paola had informed the group on the bus ride over that according to legend, a single coin toss ensured a tourist's return visit to Rome.
After admiring the enormity of the fountain with its many statues and bas-reliefs, the group set on foot to Trattoria Mario, for their first Italian dinner together.
At one table sat the entire Pasqua family, with Mr. & Mrs. Pasqua at either end, and Maggie, Olivia, David and Dinah rounding out the table.
As Maggie watched Mr. Pasqua pour himself goblet after goblet of wine, she was struck by how different he was from her own father. Not only was he wearing a Hawaiian hula shirt, which did not suit his short girth in her opinion, but he also sported a goatee. He spoke with an Italian accent, even after living in Canada for over thirty years, and was very easy-going and merry; a total contrast to her serious, stoic father.
She found herself laughing at his lame jokes, and a few times, had to wipe tears forming in her eyes, a result of his hilarious tales of his early childhood on a farm in Italy. She couldn't control her laughter when he recounted the day he was thrown from a donkey after jumping on its rump from his bedroom window. The entire table erupted when he stood up and demonstrated the donkey's reaction, complete with asinine grunts, to his vault.
David too couldn't recall the last time he laughed so hard. He was having the best time on this trip. He was sitting next to the woman of his dreams and being entertained by a jovial, half-drunk barber. He decided from then on to give Irene his secretary a raise. She deserved it.
He noticed that their table was the only one making any noise. Every other one remained pretty quiet and reserved, especially Freddie's table. David felt badly for not sitting with his friend and sister, but he only had two weeks to get to know Olivia and he didn't want to waste any opportunities of being with her.
He looked over at his friend and recognized Freddie's irritated frown. When Freddie motioned to the bar, David walked up to him. "How's it going?"
"How do you think?" Frederick answered with a grumble in his voice. He sat on a stool and ordered himself a shot of whiskey in Italian. He had a headache from the dance music playing in the background and from his cantankerous humor. "Did you know she was coming?"
David requested a drink as well and took the seat next to his friend. "No. I was as surprised as you to see her."
"I can't take her anymore David. I've put up with her all these years because she's your sister, but God loves me, I can't stand her. When is she going to get it through her head that I don't like her and that there's not a snowball's chance in hell I'd ever marry her."
David sighed. "Constance is very stubborn. Once she sets her cap on someone or something, she doesn't stop until she gets it, and unfortunately for you, she wants you." David put his arm around his friend's shoulder, trying to think of a way to console Freddie over this dire predicament. After a moment's thought, he whispered seriously, "Maybe you should just sleep with her."
Frederick practically spit out his whisky. "Are you crazy?"
"No. Do it and get it over with. Be really lousy and then she'll leave you alone."
"What's impossible? You being really lousy or sleeping with Constance?"
"Both," Frederick replied with a smirk. "The woman makes me want to puke like your sister-in-law did this afternoon."
"Sister-in-law? You already have me married to Olivia?"
"Well, I don't know," David said skittishly. "I'm really enjoying myself with her tonight, though."
"I can see that. You seem to be having a ball with Mr. Hawaii-Five-O entertaining you, while I'm stuck with your bloody sister, Phoebe, and one hell of a boring reverend from Philadelphia who wears too much damn cologne," Freddie said before calling the bartender over and ordering another drink, a double.
"Why don't you join us? Mr. Pasqua's the funniest man I've ever met. The stories he tells are beyond belief. He's got everybody gripping their stomachs."
"No thanks. I'm in no mood to socialize."
Frederick placed his glass on the bar and faced his friend. "Because coming here was a big mistake, David. You pushed me to take a vacation at the worse conceivable time. Our move is in a few months but you don't care. You'd rather be cavorting in Italy instead of doing your job. Then, not only do I come, but you put me in the cheapest, crappiest accommodations imaginable where not only is some inconsiderate girl blasting her music but..."
"Don't you think you should apologize?" David interrupted his friend's ranting. He didn't want to hear the same complaints for a third time today.
"Yeah. Ask her to dance."
Frederick couldn't believe David. First he wanted him to sleep with Constance and now he wanted him to dance with Maggie. What the hell was he on?
Frederick glanced over at Maggie, who was engrossed in conversation with Carly. How could David even suggest such a thing? The girl wasn't even his type. She was shorter and darker than the women he usually dated and she had a quick temper too.
He took a sip of his whiskey. "Forget it."
"Why? She's a sweet girl and she has one hell of a contagious giggle."
"Did you say contagious giggle?"
"What would I want with a girl who has a contagious giggle?"
"She'd make you laugh. God knows you need it. And she's extremely bright. Ask the girl anything and she knows the answer. She even appeared on Jeopardy's College Tournament. When we were at Trevi, she went on and on about Nicolo Salvi, the sculptor, and she gave us a better history of the place than Paola."
"So what? I don't care if the girl is Marie Curie. She's not my type," Frederick stated firmly and loudly.
"I thought you were bored with blond and brainless women. I thought you wanted to meet women with personality. This girl has it, believe me. But not only that, she's very pretty."
"Maybe to you she is, but I don't find Maggie attractive and I don't want to dance with her," Frederick cried with a slam of his glass on the bar. "So stop badgering me!" As Frederick swiveled his stool around to return to his table, his dark eyes met a pair of hurt ones starring right back at him.
Maggie stared at him with a mixture of anger and injury spinning throughout every capillary of her body. She chose to keep quiet and say nothing and only broke her gaze when Johnny gratefully pulled her on to the dance floor to rumba.
After spending three glorious hours admiring the beauty and mesmerizing art of the Vatican, particularly Michelangelo's masterpiece, the Sistine Chapel, the group quickly stopped for lunch and countless liters of bottled water to cool their burning bodies from the scalding sun.
To battle the heat, Maggie even purchased a folding fan from a street merchant and mercilessly haggled the price down from 15,000 lire to 5,000. That's all she thought the piece of plastic was worth, but when she swayed it back and forth in St. Peter's Square and it considerably cooled her down, she realized its true value. The fan soon became as indispensable to her as her diary.
Whenever she had a moment alone, she wrote down everything she could to recount her holiday. Up until now, it had been filled mostly with notes on Frederick. Yesterday especially. Somehow she had managed to get through her dance with Johnny, she didn't know how she did without crumbling right in front of him. When it ended, she headed for a table outside the restaurant and wrote incessantly, cursing Frederick ruthlessly.
Only when it was time to depart for the hotel, an hour later, did she cease her writings. She never realized how comforting a piece of paper and a pen could be. She could be open and free without fear of offending anyone. She wrote what came to her mind, mostly how hurt and insulted she was. She knew she would never be as beautiful as Olivia, that was a given, and she had accepted that long ago. But hearing it flat out, from a man who could have his pick of the litter, stung her more acutely than ever before.
Sleep that night evaded her. She spent most of the night out on the balcony, gazing at the stars wearing nothing but her favorite pajama, her pink babydoll. With her walkman in hand, she played a relaxation tape hoping the soothing melodies would calm her down but every time she heard the rustling sound of water crashing onto the shore, a vision of Frederick, clad in nothing but a black, tight swimsuit popped into her head.
Angry at herself for fantasizing about a man who found her unattractive, she yanked the tape out of her walk-man and flung it from her fourth-floor balcony into the field across the street. Somehow, that act calmed her more than the star gazing or the tape listening had. By throwing away that tape, she felt that she had thrown away the part of her that had been offended and when she finally returned to bed, she felt a peacefulness overtake her.
A meager two hours later when a luminous ray shone through a crack in the blinds, Maggie woke up feeling like her old self; thrilled to be in Italy and anxious for a new day to begin. She wasn't going to let Freddie spoil her trip. She had worked too hard, saved too long, and dammit, she was going to enjoy herself. Frederick Thornton or no Frederick Thornton.
So when the motorcoach circled around the most awesome of all Roman monuments, the Colosseum, Maggie let that fun, excited, elated sensation she had had upon first arriving in Italy return to her. She couldn't wait for Pino to stop the bus and let them off and when he finally opened the doors, she was the first one to descend. She sprinted all the way to the entrance but halted suddenly when her eyes caught sight of the most unexpected thing she'd ever seen. "Carly, Olivia!" she screamed. "Get over here now! You're not going to believe this."
Her exclamation was heard throughout the group, grasping everyone's interest, especially Frederick's.
"What is it, Maggie? What's got you so... Oh my God!" Carly shrieked. Her heart stopped when she saw a magnificent, brawny man, dressed in gladiator garb combatively standing on a huge bolder, posing for pictures with tourists.
"I want a picture with him, now," Maggie stated emphatically. "Johnny, take it with my camera, please."
"Why would you want to pose with that guy?"
"Because he's gorgeous!" Maggie, Carly and Olivia all said together.
Johnny instantaneously felt mediocre when comparing his lithe form to the sinewy soldier. "He's not that good-looking," he said jealously.
Maggie kept staring at the centurion, bewitched by his impressive stance as he held a spear in one hand and a gold shield in another. His red skirt was swaying from the light breeze, revealing the firmness of his tanned legs. "Are you kidding? His body is perfect," she sighed. "Just look at those calf muscles and those thighs, they're so well-defined."
Frederick observed Maggie intensely, inwardly chuckling at her excitement over the soldier. He knew he would never hear her say that about him. He had insulted her too hurtfully to ever expect such a complement from her. Also, being a person who rarely wore shorts made it impossible for women, other than those he had entertained in his bedroom, to analyze his lower body with such detail.
He wanted to take back his words and apologize for being so rude to her. All night he pondered on what to say to her. He hadn't had a sleepless night over a woman in a long time, but last night, he tossed and turned in his restricting little bed until finally abandoning it for the airiness of the balcony.
Every time he looked up at the stars he saw her eyes, brimming with anger and injury. He wanted to kick himself for making her feel so badly. She had done nothing to him, except be in the wrong place at the wrong time. He didn't know why he said what he did except that he wasn't used to dating women who looked like her; that didn't make her unattractive, it just made her different. The more he thought about Maggie, the more he realized she was quite pretty. She definitely had a shapely figure, captivating eyes and a fun sense of style.
Today, she looked particularly appealing with her ponytail hanging out of her Red Sox baseball cap and wearing a sleeveless white blouse tied with a knot at the waist, on a thigh-high pair of Levi shorts. But when she donned her dark sunglasses underneath that cap, she became chic, and emitted a sense of confidence that attracted him. Suddenly, he became as envious as Johnny that she didn't gush all over him the way she did the gladiator.
He tried not to make his observation of her too obvious by forcing himself to talk to Constance. He found it difficult to remain concentrated on his friend's snotty sister when what he really wanted to do was converse with Maggie and join her in her exploration of Italy.
"Don't you think that whole ensemble makes him look so powerful, so potently masculine?" he heard Maggie say, making him want to rush out and rent the same damn costume.
"Definitely," Carly agreed, licking her lips. "Wouldn't you love to press your body against his armor?"
"I'd like to do more than that," Maggie said under her breath.
Fed up with their ogling, Johnny cried, "You two sound like cats in heat, do you know that?"
Carly walked over to her brother. "We're in heat? You've been on the prowl since we left the house. On the plane ride over here you were going crazy because one of the flight attendants looked like Sophia Loren. You've been gawking at practically every single Italian girl in a tight skirt and your eyes haven't stopped roaming since we landed that I'm surprised you can even see straight. So give us a break! The man's hot and we want a picture." She took Maggie's camera and slammed it in her brother's palm. "Snap the picture."
Reluctantly, Johnny conceded. He walked a few feet away while the girls headed toward the gladiator. As they posed around him, the soldier pulled out a red sac from behind the bolder and pointed inside. Maggie glanced at it before asking the gladiator in Italian if they we're supposed to pay.
"Si," he answered.
"How much is it?"
"20,000 lire?" the three girls screeched once leaning of the price.
"Are you crazy?" Johnny hollered, letting the camera fall to his side. "That's way too much money."
Maggie tried to reason with the soldier in her broken Italian. "You're going to charge us each 20,000 lire for the honor of taking a picture with you?"
"That's ridiculous! Not only do I have to pay you, but I have to pay for development afterwards. What if it doesn't come out?"
"That's the chance you take."
Maggie really didn't care about the money, she was willing to spend any amount to get this picture, but she at least wanted to try to haggle it down. When the centurion wouldn't budge on the price, she gave him a cheeky smile and said, "You really like to rob tourists, don't you?"
Constance, sensing that Frederick's attention was drawn to Maggie and not at her, (she had seen him sneaking glances at Maggie all morning long), found the perfect opening to demean Maggie's worth in his eyes. "If you can't afford 20,000 lire than you should have stayed home."
Startled at the comment, Maggie shook her head in amazement. She jumped off the boulder and walked to Constance, facing her with aplomb. "What did you say?"
"I said, if 20,000 lire is too much money, then you have no business coming to Italy."
"I have no business? I have more business visiting this country than you do."
"Why? Because you're Italian?" Constance snickered derisively. "You're not a real Italian. You can't even speak the language well. It's a horrible peasantry dialect."
"Constance!" David yelled, embarrassed by his sister's snide insult.
Constance took her Chanel sunglasses off to look at Maggie smugly. "It's the truth. You're all derelicts who had to flee to America to survive, and from the looks of you," she glanced at Maggie from top to bottom, "I wonder if you have."
Olivia leapt off the stone and quickly drifted to her sister's side. She clutched Maggie's tense shoulders, wanting to refrain her sister from acting irrationally. "Maggie, don't say anything..."
"Don't you dare gag me, Olivia," Maggie clamored. She had had enough insults to last a lifetime. She didn't know what she had done to earn Constance's contempt, but she did not want to be muzzled by her sister again.
Frederick rigidly stood next to Constance, wanting more than anything to thrash her. But he had a hunch that Maggie could well defend herself without his help.
"This brainless twit just insulted not only me, but you, Carly, Johnny and Mr. & Mrs. Pasqua as well, and I'm not going to remain quiet because you're afraid of ruffling this stuck-up, gaudy, pretentious hag's feathers."
"Margherita..." Mr. Pasqua said softly. He took hold of Maggie's hand and looked calmly into he eyes, trying to ease her distress. "Leave it alone. You're here to see Italy, not get into a fight with a person who's never experienced hardship and been fortunate enough to never be in a war. She's not worth wasting your breath. Come on, get back in the picture. Johnny, you join them. I'll take it. I want you kids to have fun, not fight."
Maggie stood firm, glaring at Constance, her heart racing with rage.
"Come on, bella" he urged. "Go stand with your sister and your friends. I want a nice picture. I'm going to hang it on my wall in my barber shop, so I want a beautiful smile, all right?"
Maggie exhaled a long, deep, breath and shook her head in accord. She let go of Mr. Pasqua's hand and slowly walked back to the gladiator. When she offered him the money, he refused it and whispered something in her ear, startling her with his request. She looked at him skeptically and after a moment's hesitation, agreed to his suggestion. Another opportunity like that was never going to come her way again.
Everyone itched to find out what the soldier had said. It wasn't long before they knew. After he gladly posed for free with Maggie, Olivia, Carly and Johnny, he waited for the latter three to remove themselves from the shot. He placed his spear and shield on the ground and then effortlessly lifted Maggie in his arms for a solo picture.
She wrapped her arms around his neck and giddily smiled when his head moved closer for a kiss. The light touch of his lips against hers made the brouhaha with Constance worthwhile.
Gently, he put her down to the ground. He lifted her hand to his mouth and lightly brushed it, thanking her for the unexpected but lovely embrace. She thanked him in return for brightening her disposition and walked away confidently, deliberately passing Constance and Freddie with the biggest smile ever to adorn her face.
© 2000 Copyright held by the author.
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