No sooner had Guillermo entered the salon than his brother-in-law, Paulo, approached him with an indecipherable expression on his face and handed him a glass of vivid garnet-hued wine.
Guillermo lifted the glass to his nose. "Eh? What's up, Paulo?" They had insisted he come for dinner this weekend, and after Bianca's oddly distressed phone call, he was anxious to know what was going on.
Paulo sipped his wine, dipping his long aristocratic nose into his glass, and peering at Guillermo over the rim with a twinkle in his dark eyes. "First tell me what you think. Then tell me what you're up to, fratello."
Guillermo shrugged and sipped. The intense flavors of wild dried cherry, plums, and forest fruit rolled over his tongue. Hints of spice, tobacco and warm earth. He swallowed and took a breath, letting the powerful tannins grab his palate. "Nice. Brunello ?"
"Si. I'm playing with the oak, and the aging. This is just out of oak. It's a little experiment of mine."
Guillermo nodded and took another sip, swishing and letting the bright ripe fruit flavors explode in his mouth. Paulo had real talent. He really would succeed in rebuilding the Cittadini Brunello di Montalcino family winery. Guillermo wished his own elder brother showed some interest in restoring the home farm and vineyard, but his political career precluded all of that.
"Bene. Good work, fratello." This was a little joke between them, brothers by marriage. There had been a little rough patch, at the beginning, when Paulo and Pia first married. They were very different in temperament, Paulo staid and quiet to Guillermo's reckless and adventurous spirit. But now, they understood each other very well. They were two sides of the same coin, and tolerated… no, loved each other. Pia had chosen well. Guillermo was more comfortable with Paulo than with his own elder brother, Jacopo, who was more like Father, and not in a good way. Guillermo moved into the comfortable green salon and chose an arm chair, easing back.
"Well?" said Paulo.
"Tell me the truth about this woman you brought. It's a spectacular ruse to bring a friend for the weekend, but you know it's not necessary. Your, eh, inamorata are always welcome, despite Pia's…" Paulo gestured vaguely, and they both understood what this meant. Pia's pinched faces, rolling eyes, earnest lectures about his love life, his choice of women, his future.
Guillermo choked on a swallow, coughing. "Did you see her? You have to be kidding me."
Paulo waited, eyebrows lifted, clearly convinced there was more to the story.
"No, no. This is really just as I told you. I don't even know this woman. Besides she's too old, I think, and priggish. I'm not sure what she is, but certainly no inamorata of mine." He laughed softly. "You should know better, Paulo. I have high standards."
Although none were known to stick around very long, Guillermo always had a glamorous, beautiful woman at his side. Women seemed to like him very much, so that had never been a challenge.
Paulo laughed, "I do know, but seriously. You just rescued her? This doesn't seem like you."
"Certainly it does, caro." Pia entered the room with a plate of antipasti in her hand, bending to offer it to Guillermo. He helped himself to some prosciutto and olives. She met his eye with a smile. "My little brother is most selfless and benevolent. A buon Samaritano." She brushed his long hair from his forehead as she had when he was small, carried the tray to her husband, and bent to kiss his mouth. Then she set it on a small table and left the room. "You don't know him if you think he would leave a stranded lady on the roadside."
"Were you listening in?" Paulo asked, but she didn't reply, tossing a smile over her shoulder.
Both men burst into laughter as she walked away.
"It's true," said Guillermo, lifting his brows and giving his head a little shake, "I'm a saint," and they laughed again.
Just then the object of their conversation entered the room, and their laughter died in their throats. Guillermo glanced up into the most astonishing wide-set blue-green eyes, the color of the Ligurian sea, set in a lovely oval face, surrounded by a thick mane of stunning auburn hair loosely tied back. A Pre-Raphaelite painting. Such a plump mouth, wide and ripe for kissing. She was so much younger than he had thought.
He shot to his feet, nearly upsetting his wine. He set it down and strode toward her.
"Signorina! Bella. How well you look." He would have thought she was an entirely different person, but he knew there was no one else here but the housekeeper-cook. Clio had made a dramatic transformation into an exquisitely beautiful woman.
A pink flush rose into her alabaster cheeks. Delightful. "Thank you." Her gaze dropped shyly to the rug. "I…uh. Your sister was kind enough to lend me some clothes until mine are laundered."
Ochre freckles dusted her nose. An angry red lump swelled on her forehead. Her forearms were patched with bandages. He reached out to take her hand, bringing it quickly to his lips, so soft, she smelled like lavender and ointment. "They suit you very well."
The sound of Paulo clearing his throat brought him to his senses. He stepped back. "Ah. How rude of me. My sister's husband, Paulo Cittadini. Please meet Signorina Clio…em. 'Scusi. I have forgotten again." His eyes met Paulo's, in which he saw the suppressed laughter and teasing that he kept from his face.
"Clio Sinclair McBeal." She narrowed her eyes and snatched her hand away from Guillermo, reaching for Paulo's, now standing beside them.
"You are not badly injured, I hope?"
"Not at all, grazie."
They shook hands, and Guillermo ruefully reviewed their playful conversation from a moment ago. This beautiful young woman he would gladly take to his bed. It seems his body knew better than his mind, even in the dark.
"La ringrazio molto per avermi fatto benvenuto nella vostra casa, Signor Cittadini," she thanked him. "I find I am at your mercy this evening."
Again Guillermo marveled at her excellent Italian. But for a slight accent, she could have been a native. Paulo said, "You are American, Signorina?"
"Please, call me Clio. Yes American and Canadian, both."
While her attention was focused on Paulo, Guillermo let his eyes roam over her. She was tall, as he had already observed. But in the dark, under the mud and wet shapeless clothing, the rest had escaped his notice completely–except for her breasts, of course. His body betrayed him with a hot spasm in the groin. Not only young, but beautiful. Pale and soft, with vivid eyes and hair, long limbs and luscious curves that had been hidden under her utilitarian trousers and shirt, and were now only hinted at under her sister's long silky skirt and sheer, flounced blouse. Guillermo felt himself flood with warmth and stir in his trousers. What a surprise.
"A glass of wine, Clio?" Paulo offered, and she consented.
When Paulo had stepped out of the room, Guillermo recovered his manners and turned to her with a welcoming smile. "I am so happy to see you dry and comfortable, Clio. I hope you will not mind recovering here for the weekend. I am very happy to have the opportunity to get to know such a beautiful woman much better."
"For the weekend?" she squeaked. "Are we not returning to Florence tonight?"
Guillermo froze. Eh? "Tonight? Of course not. It will be much too late after dinner. And I came for the weekend. My visit here is long overdue, and my sister is expecting me to stay."
"That was before–"
"Not at all. You are as welcome as I am. You must stay also."
"But I have–"
Paulo returned with her wine. "Yes, I insist also. It is no imposition, I assure you. We have plenty of room."
"Oh no." She bit her lip, drawing Guillermo's attention to it's fullness and rich ruby color once again. "I don't mean to be ungrateful, but I have an appointment. It's very important."
"In Firenze? Tonight?" Paulo asked.
"Yes. I must–"
"It's much too late now, Clio. It would take us more than two hours in the dark," Guillermo said.
"But… did the police call about my car?"
"Si. They called. I'm afraid your car will not be transported to Montecchiello until tomorrow. And that's only if they can find the fellow with the truck on a Sunday. I told them you would contact them on Monday, and I can take you there on the way back to Firenze, as long as we leave early. I have a meeting in the city."
She seemed to deflate, and her aquatic eyes swam with tears. A long-fingered delicate hand rose to her brow. She had a red welt above her eye, and she flinched as she inadvertently touched it. "I'll be kicked out now. I have to call him. I have to…" She turned to Paulo. "May I use your telephone, please?"
Kicked out? Of where?
"Of course," Paulo said.
"Here. Use my cellular," said Guillermo, handing it to her. His chest squeezed with compassion. She was so overcome with some inexplicable grief. He felt a powerful urge to comfort her and protect her from whatever dire consequences seemed to await her late return to the city.
She took his phone and excused herself, retreating to the far side of the room, and slipped into an armchair facing the dark windows. He watched her anxious reflection in the glass as she dialed. He was quite overcome by her beauty and frailty, all the more so because it took him by surprise. He sensed a kind of stubborn strength in her, despite her having been overwhelmed by her traumatic experience.
"Hello? Dr. Jovi? It's me Clio."
Guillermo tried not to eavesdrop, but he was compelled by his curiosity. A doctor's appointment on Saturday night? He glanced up to find Paulo silently observing him, an expression of amused pity animating his face.
"…and so he brought me here, to a country estate. I won't be able to…"
"Uh. What's for dinner?" Guillermo asked half-heartedly, trying to tear his attention away from Clio. Whatever Pia served would be delicious, he knew.
"You'll find out." Paulo laughed, picked up the weekend newspaper and shook it out. He obviously knew Guillermo wasn't really listening.
"…so sorry, Dr. Jovi. I know I'm behind. I know I promised. I couldn't help…"
Surely no one could blame her for the accident. Guillermo stood up. He could help.
"'Scusi, Clio. Please allow me, to vouch for, uh…"
Clio looked up at him, her distress apparent. She said nothing as he gently took the phone from her hand. "Buonasera, Dr. Jovi?"
The nasal, gravelly voice of an old man replied, "What? Who is this?"
"This is Guillermo Gabriel d'Aldobrandin."
"D'Aldobrandin…of the uh, il Ministro dei MIT?"
"Si. My brother Jacopo. It is I who came upon Signorina Sinclair this evening, after the automobile crash. It is very lucky for her that I arrived on the scene."
"Si. I believe she would have suffered hypothermia if she had stayed out any longer, although her injuries, thankfully, are not serious. I assure you the young lady was not to blame in any way. It was a terrible accident caused by some delinquents. She is very distressed that she cannot keep her appointment this evening. She has tried to persuade me in every way that it is essential, however, I cannot return her to la citte until Monday, perhaps midday. Once we have investigated the condition of her wrecked vehicle in Montecchiello."
"Oh? Is that so?"
"Si. It is. I trust you will be able to reschedule this important engagement with Signorina Sinclair? I would feel personally responsible if she were penalized on my account."
A gruff noise emanated from the phone. Guillermo did not know what to make of this taciturn old man. "Please put Clio on the phone, Signor."
"Of course. Buonasera Dottore." Guillermo handed the phone back to Clio with a reassuring smile, though he was no further enlightened as to the nature of Clio's emergency, or the identity of the old man, and could by no means assure her that disaster had been averted.
Clio listened as the old man apparently found plenty of words for her ears, and Guillermo backed away, returning to his chair and his glass of wine. Again he met Paulo's eye, and between them they silently agreed the whole business was strange. "Way to name-drop, fratello." Paulo's newspaper came up again, and Guillermo sighed.
"But I have." Clio exclaimed. "Everything became clear today, Dr. Jovi. I was going to write it up before our meeting. I see it now."
Guillermo's ears pricked up again.
"Yes, of course, I have photographed it and made sketches. Mm-hmm."
Her voice had altered, growing impassioned and musical. "The painting of Saint Clare of the Cross at the Franciscan Monastery was a revelation. It was so like Bernini's Saint Theresa, and yet not. The situation was different, not so public. There was a unique quality to her ecstatic state.The artist is unknown, but yet very talented. Her swoon is most exquisite. One can only assume the artist knew his subject very intimately. And it pre-dates Bernini. Yes. And if you have not seen the blissful expression on the upturned face of the little saint, Dr. Jovi, then you must make the pilgrimage one day to see it in person."
Guillermo leaned forward and peered at the glowing reflection of Clio in the window glass. Her posture had changed. She sat upright, and her face was open and animated. Instead of folded inward and contained, her body moved energetically and expressively, her hands drawing languid arcs in the air. The scene caused a stirring in his loins, yes; how could it not given the subject matter and the messenger, but also a pressure in his chest. An acute tension. Her passion for her subject moved him, as it transformed her. And if he thought she was beautiful before, now he could see that there was much more to this enigmatic woman who had fallen into his lap.
"Dinner is ready, everyone," announced Pia as she strode into the salon. "Please come to the table. Oh. I'm sorry, Clio, I didn't realize you were on the phone."
"No. I'm finished. It's alright." Clio stood up, once again reserved and polite, but a rosy flush remained on her cheeks, and her eyes were dark and bright with remembered excitement. Guillermo was smitten.
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