Gio took another full glass of champagne from a passing waiter’s tray. He’d lost count of how many he’d had but the alcohol was having a nicely numbing effect on his brain. He’d walked straight into the debacle of the century. Expecting to find his cousin’s family jubilant and gloating with their new merger of power, he’d instead found small huddles of guests in the sumptuously decorated reception room, all whispering excitedly of the runaway bride.
The unfolding scandal was so unexpected that it defused much of his simmering anger at the thought of having to play nice with his family. Gio decided that he’d more than done his duty and slugged back the champagne before putting the empty glass down. He made his way out of the main function room into the corridor and passed by an ante – room where the wedding band were setting up and doing a sound check. He shook his head in disbelief — clearly the word hadn’t reached this far yet — or perhaps his formidable aunt Carmela wasn’t going to let a runaway bride stop her guests from dancing the night away?
Something suddenly caught Gio’s peripheral vision. He stopped in his tracks. He was passing another room now, a store room. He could see that it was the figure of a woman sitting on a chair in the empty room, surrounded by boxes and other chairs piled high. Her head was downbent, glossy chestnut hair caught up in a bun. Shapely legs under a black skirt. A white shirt and jacket. Slim pale hands clasped on her lap.
As if she could feel the weight of his gaze on her, her head started to come up. Déjà vu was so immediate and strong, Gio nearly staggered back from it. No, he thought, it couldn’t be her. Not here, not now. Not ever. She was only in his dreams and nightmares. Cursing him. Along with the ghost of her brother.
But now her head was up fully and those glorious tiger eyes were widening. It was her. The knowledge exploded something open, deep inside him. Something that had been frozen in time for seven years. He saw colour leach from her cheeks. So much more angular now that her teenage plumpness had disappeared. So much more beautiful. He could see her throat work, swallowing.
She stood up with a slightly jerky move. She was taller than he remembered, slimmer and yet with very womanly curves. The promise of the burgeoning beauty that he remembered had been truly fulfilled. So many things were impacting Gio at once that he had to shut them all down deep inside him.
He had alternately dreaded and anticipated the possibility of this day for a long time. He couldn’t crumble now in front of her. He wouldn’t allow himself the luxury.
He walked to the entrance of the room and totally redundantly he said, ‘Valentina.’ And then after a pause, ‘It’s good to see you.’
Valentina was in shock. More shock heaped on top of shock. Without even realising she was speaking out loud she said, ‘You’re not meant to be here.’ The sheer force of my will should have kept you away. But she didn’t say that.
Gio’s mouth turned up on one corner in a tiny movement that wasn’t quite a smile, ‘Well my cousin is, was, the groom so I have some right to be here.’ He frowned slightly, ‘What are you doing here?’
Valentina’s brain wasn’t working properly. She answered almost absently, ‘I’m the caterer.’
Gio was so much taller and broader than she remembered. Any hint of boyishness was gone. He was all stark angles and sinuous muscle and power. The suit hugged his muscular frame like a second skin. The white shirt and white bow — tie made him look even darker.
His hair was still messy though, giving him a familiar devil — may — care look that rang bells somewhere dimly in Valentina’s consciousness. His eyes were a light brown and a wicked voice whispered that she knew very well they could look green in certain lights.
She’d used to watch him and her brother for hours as they’d egged each other on in a series of dare — devil stunts, either on horse – back or on the mud bikes Gio had had first on his father’s property, and then later, on his own property. But by then they’d been proper adult motorbikes and he and her brother had relished their death defying races. She remembered the way Gio would tip his head back and laugh, he’d looked so vitally masculine, his teeth gleaming whitely in his face.
She remembered turning fifteen and seeing him again for the first time in about four years, because he’d been living abroad in France, building up his equine business. He’d returned home a conquering hero, a self — made millionaire, with a bevy of champion thoroughbred horses. But that had had nothing to do with how she’d instantly had an altogether different awareness of him. Her belly would twist when she saw him, and then there were the butterflies, so violent it was like feeling sick. Her gaze had been shamefully captivated by his tall rangy body.
Much to her ever — lasting shame she’d tagged along on her brother’s visits to Gio in his new home near Syracuse whenever he’d been home from college, during his long summers off. Gio had bought a palatial castello complete with a farm, where he’d installed a state of the art stud and gallops. He’d been in the process of doing up a nearby run – down race — track which by today had become the famed Corretti race track where the eponymous internationally renowned annual Corretti Cup Race was held.
Gio had caught her staring once and she’d been so mortified she’d been red for a week. She hadn’t been able to get out of her head how he’d held her gaze for a long moment, a slow smile turning up his mouth, as if something illicit and secret had passed between them. Something that scared her as much as it had exhilarated her.
He had a beautiful face, sculpted lips. High cheekbones and a hard slashing line of a nose. A strong chin. But something in his demeanor took away any prettiness. A dark brooding energy surrounded him like a force — field.
Gio lifted a hand to point to her hair and said, ‘You have something…just there.’ It shattered her memories and brought her back to the present. He was pointing above her right ear and Valentina reached up and felt something wet and sticky and took her hand down to see a lump of viscous orange salmon caviar.
And then it was as if the deep baritone reality of his voice made the bells ring loud and clear in her head. He looked devil — may — care because that’s what he was, and that attitude had led directly to her brother’s death. For the last few moments she’d been protecting herself from the reality that he was here, in front of her, and now that protection was ripped away.
She remembered. And with that knowledge came the pain. The memories. That lonely grave in the graveyard. Seven years of an ache that didn’t seem to get any better, only fade slightly. Until it caught you unawares and the wound was reopened all over again. Like right now.
How dared he stand there and talk to her as if nothing had happened? As if civility could hide the ugly past. Anger and something much darker bubbled up inside Valentina. A kind of guilt, for having remembered another time for a moment — disgusted with herself she strode out of the room and straight up to Gio. She clenched the hand that held the remnants of the once perfect canapé and looked up at him focusing on the blazing incinerating anger of grief, and not something much more dangerous in her belly when she realized how tall he was. ‘Get out of my way Corretti.’
Gio flinched minutely as if she’d slapped him. He could remember in vivid recall how it had felt that day when she’d punched him in the chest. And he welcomed it now. For a few seconds when she’d looked stunned and not angry, he’d thought that perhaps with time, a mellowing had taken place. But then he mocked himself — the pain of losing Mario still as fresh as it had been on the night he died. And the shock to cushion that blow had long gone. Now there was just the excoriating and ever — present guilt.
Valentina was looking up at him, her eyes glowing gold and spitting. She hated him. It was in every taut and tense line of her body.
She gritted out, ‘I said get out of my way Corretti.’