The tiny, mountain top library was quiet for Saturday morning, which was just as well because Mr. Zingaro had just received good news.
The older Italian man's yell made me jump, the miniature leaning tower of change I was counting tipping and spilling across the counter. I shot a glance at my hyperactive patron who was in the process of leaping from his seat at the PC terminal like his bum was on fire.
"Mr. Zingaro is something wrong?" I asked.
"Good news!" He was pacing around the staff counter now, hands flying in the air, a babble of Italian spilling from his mouth. "L'arrivo di mio figlio è sempre un motivo per celebrare."
My expression lacked the comprehension required to share in his excitement. "You lost me after 'good news'."
The older gent stopped dead in his tracks. Spinning on the spot, he shot me a horrified glance. Always the diva. "Oh Lizbeth, you must learn to speak Italian. You told me once you had Italian family. It would do you some good."
I smirked at this, my mind exploding with memories of my Nonno telling me those exact words years ago. "…it would do you good. That way you will be able to marry a good Italian man." Never mind that he himself wasn't exactly the epitome of goodness, because in his next breath came the stern warning not to play in his forbidden 'magic herb' garden... if you get my drift.
"They're Australian-Italians. That's different. They only speak Italian when they're gambling or losing at the races."
A low chuckle escaped Mr. Zingaro's throat that seemed remarkably predatory for a harmless old man. Then he planted a perfect white smile on his face and I recall thinking to myself, 'he's quite the looker for an older guy.' "My son Alessandro is arriving from Italy. He will be here for three months. You must meet him! He would be very impressed if you knew a little bit of Italian."
"Oh would he now?" Suppressing another smirk I nodded sagely at my patron. "I will endeavour to improve my knowledge on the subject, Mr. Zingaro."
"I insist. You must learn. It is a very passionate language, cara." Deep pools of sensual brown eyed me over the rim of his thin glasses. "You will show him around while he is here, sì? And please, Lizbeth, you know you may call me by my first name."
This time my smirk did break through. God, he was such a devil. "Certainly, Giuseppe. But just so you know, I am immune to your attempted flirtations. You still owe two dollars on your library card."
"Of course." His grin was as cheeky as it was smoky and I realised he'd probably managed to break at lot of hearts with that thing back in his day. "But just know, I can't flirt with you, Lizzie. You are too much like a daughter."
Well, damn. Smooth.
I chuckled at that. "And you always know how to twist things to get what you want."
"So you'll do it? You'll show my son around?"
"I suppose you leave me with no choice, dad," I teased and he barked a laugh.
Satisfied, Giuseppe headed back to his email, his fingers were thrumming excitedly across the keyboard and I wondered briefly if all Italians typed as expressively as they spoke. Shaking off the thought, I settled back into counting the change tin and closing up the library for the afternoon, not particularly concerned that Mr. Zingaro... Giuseppe... was making no effort to leave. He always had a knack for finishing up his business the moment the clock hit midday and I didn't mind his company.
"Will your son's family be coming too?" I asked right on closing as Giuseppe pulled back from the computer and got to his feet, stretching out old legs that I could tell in his time had been quite long and muscular. In fact, they still were somewhat.
"Oh no, just Alessandro. He is a very busy business man. But he does need a good woman."
I placed a pile of paperback romance books on a trolley to be shelved on Monday. "I'm sure he's eager to see you."
Giuseppe's expression turned inquisitive as it usually did when he was about to ask me something about my personal life. "So how was your date with that gentleman last night?"
I rolled my eyes. "Don't even ask."
A smirk formed on his lips before he pressed it into a frown, I guess in an attempt of solidarity for my lousy love life. "That bad, was it?"
I shrugged. There really was no way of sugar-coating it, especially with someone who had appointed himself the role of stand-in father figure since my real parents lived so far away. Not that I needed another parent. He just enjoyed it. I guess.
"Dating culture these days really has no substance," I said. "I mean, whatever happened to these 'modern day Mr. Darcys' that the books go on about?" I reached for the pile of romance books I'd just placed on the trolley and grabbed one from the top. There was a sexy, dark-haired hero on the front cover, gazing broodingly at his heroine. "I know they're pure fantasy, but surely there is some truth to what women really want in them. Right?"
Giuseppe's smirk returned as he eyed off the book in my hand. "So, you say more men need to read these books that you so love?"
I had to chuckle. Who was I kidding?
"I know. I'm being unreasonable," I said. "I'm too picky, Giuseppe. That's my problem. It's just that I would rather be alone than with someone who isn't right for me."
But Giuseppe simply shrugged. "Maybe you just need to fill the pages of your own story."
He turned to shut down the computer he'd just been using, snapping me back to the library and the fact that it was now five minutes past closing and I hadn't yet picked out anything to read for the weekend. I checked the book I was holding to my library card and stuffed it in my bag just as Giuseppe reached the front door and held it open for me. Despite his age he still had a decent amount of height on me and I ducked under his arm. "Have a good weekend, Giuseppe."
"Ciao," he said with a wink and the tip of an imaginary hat.
I watched him as he whistled his way to his waiting driver. He slipped into the back seat of his car and the driver closed it behind him. He had a Jaguar. Nice! One of the perks of retirement I could only assume. I locked up the library and made a run for the station just as the train pulled up. It was a perfect spring day; sun shining and cloudless with just the slightest hint of a breeze. After a long, cold winter, the onset of warmer weather was a welcome sight.
Just in time for Alessandro's arrival, I thought. Why did I feel like I already knew this guy? I wondered briefly on the climate Giuseppe's son would be coming from. Beautiful one day and perfect the next? Italy. The Mediterranean. It was the stuff of fantasies. A wistful sigh escaped my lips and I eased into a seat on the train. I pulled out the book I'd picked up from work. Where am I off to today? I thought to myself. The beautiful heroine on the front cover was locked in a sensual embrace with her lover. Italy; in the arms of a brooding billionaire. Perfect. My fingers peeled open the fresh paperback romance and I dove head first into this delicious fictional world of seduction and temptation.
The main characters were in the throes of their first heated quarrel when I realised I was about to miss my station. The train jolted to a stop, doors clanking open as the announcement for my station rang through the PA. I burst upright in my seat.
"Oh shoot!" Quickly shoving the book away, I made a dash for the exit, not even caring that my swinging bag smacked the heads of virtually every passenger I passed. But before I had a chance to blast out onto the platform Indiana Jones style, the door slid shut and the train jolted to a start again. I watched on helplessly as the station disappeared from before my eyes.
"Che palle," I breathed one Italian phrase I did know.
I dropped into the nearest seat all the while blatantly avoiding the glances of the other passengers. Some smirked at my misfortune and others glared and rubbed the backs of their heads. I placed an elbow on the windowsill beside me, a sigh escaping my lips as the endless mountain terrain passed me by. At least the view was pretty. Less than ten minutes later, the train arrived at the next station. I stepped onto a barren slab of a platform and cast a glance about my surroundings. For starters, I was the only person who had disembarked so I was alone here. Several metres to my left cars zipped past on the adjacent highway and then to my right a small scrap of suburbia lay hidden beneath a canopy of gumtree forest. Throw in the buzz of cicadas and I could be forgiven for believing I was out in the sticks. A quick check of the timetable on my mobile (thankfully I still had reception up here) indicated that the train to take me back to my station didn't arrive for another fifty minutes.
My stomach gave a loud, impatient growl and I cringed, thankful that no one else was around to hear it. Well this just left me with two options: Wait here and slowly starve to death or cross the highway and look for some cheap food that wouldn't eat too much into my savings for my much anticipated Hawaii trip. To my credit I did at least attempt option number one. For a little while anyway. But even despite the limited shade I found, I realised that sitting on a concrete slab in this warm weather was getting too hot for comfort. Pretty soon the cute little cardigan I wore to protect my shoulders from the library's air conditioning was acting like a heat blanket. I peeled it off and hung it over my shoulder bag, licking chapped lips. Lack of winter rains this year had caused the landscape to dry out, raising the risk of bush fires. I could feel it in the air and the way it sucked any semblance of moisture from... well... everything. Even the gumtrees that were known to be able to handle a bit of drought were starting to look a little crisp. That just left me option number two: cross the highway and hit up the only piece of civilisation around here.
Sitting atop a mountain ledge, the recently renovated Hydro Majestic hotel boasted a unique blend of Art Deco and Edwardian architecture and stood out as a stark contrast to the scrub that surrounded it. In fact, it wasn't until you saw what was behind it that it was possible to understand why someone would bother putting up a luxury hotel here in the first place. It snaked its way along the cliff top like a castle or a fortified wall, unashamedly hogging million dollar views of the valley below it. Hosting not only luxury accommodation but also a gift shop, a sandwich deli and multiple restaurants, it was often busy on a Saturday afternoon. Though for some reason, this particular Saturday the main attraction was confined to the car park. I watched the small crowd that had gathered around what I assumed was a car.
It was a jet black Lamborghini.
Oh wow. Not just any car then.
We didn't often get one of those around here. I smirked at the coos and whistles of car enthusiasts but really, who could blame them? Sleek curves and looks to kill, the car was sex on wheels! Every man's wet dream. Little did I know however, that her sex on legs driver was standing right behind me. It was his shadow coming over me that alerted me to the fact that someone was there. I didn't take much notice at first. After all, there was a small crowd here. Then his cologne hit, and not the overpowering, choke-to-death-on-a-cloud-of-vapour sort. No, this was an expensive, top end brand that had been perfectly tailored to suit his body. You know, the sort of cologne that made you want to bury your face in his neck and make hot intense love to him until neither of you could breathe let alone move. Naturally, I turned around... and invariably found myself face-to-Adam's-apple with the most sensual neck, chin and pair of lips I had ever seen. I actually had to take two steps backwards to get a full view of him, my eyes drinking in this broad-shouldered, six-foot-something, full-blooded Italian.
"Alessandro," the heated moan escaped my lips before I even had a chance to stop it.
The most intense blue eyes that were a moment ago amusedly observing the spectacle before him came crashing into me, a quizzical frown forming on his lovely, bronzed brow.
"Pardon me, Signorina? Have we met?" His voice, deep and sultry, was pure sex. Hell every part of him fit the description. His presence alone had the dangerous potential to make me spontaneously combust.
If any one point of this meeting was the time to make a good first impression it was now, but as I stared up at him utterly dumbstruck, the next thing that came from my mouth was less than promising. "Huh?"
The puzzlement didn't leave his face. "You said my name just now. Do you know me?"
It would have been easy to smile and say he was only the best sex I'd ever had because the images that were assaulting my brain right then were enough to make even the most experienced womanizer blush.
"Lizbeth!" The call of my name in that familiar Italian zing finally snapped me from my temporary paralysis and I spun to spot Giuseppe flanking me to the left. He was short of breath, indicating that he'd just been wandering along the cliff top walk. "What are you doing here?"
A further few seconds and my brain kicked in. Both men looked remarkably identical; sharing the same broad-shouldered build and thick, dark hair (though Giuseppe's was considerably greyer and thinner), as well as the same exquisite jaw lines that looked as though they had been carved from marble. The differences however came with their eyes and cheekbones. Where Giuseppe's eyes were warm and chocolate brown, Alessandro's were icy blue. And where you could slice bread with Giuseppe's cheeks, Alessandro's were softer. Though that didn't necessarily hamper his handsomeness, in fact, it only worked to make him more intriguing.
"I... I missed my stop on the train." Relief. I was getting more than just singular nouns and incoherent sounds out now.
Giuseppe's chuckle was low and amused. "It's those books you read. You get your head stuck in them and forget to surface, no?"
I soon realised my gaze hadn't really left Alessandro since I'd first laid eyes on him. His lips (oh those lips!) were pressed together but his frown had since relaxed. I needed to force myself to look away before things got creepy… Yet I wasn't ignorant to the fact that he was in the process of making a silent appraisal of his own. I suddenly felt incredibly naked even despite the flowery sundress I was wearing. A shiver rattled its way down my back, goose-bumps breaking out across my arms so that I inadvertently reached for my cardigan. I didn't need to worry about his study of me for long though, because just as quickly as I'd caught him staring, a look of irritation shot across his features before he glanced back at his father.
"Abbiamo una prenotazione."
Giuseppe nodded and replied to his son in Italian before Alessandro pivoted on his feet and swiftly headed toward the hotel restaurant. Even though it was the only result I could have expected from someone like him, his evident rejection actually hurt. I felt winded. Like someone had just come along and punched me in the gut.
Pushing down my smiting pride, I turned and faced Giuseppe with a pleasant smile. "When you said your son was arriving from Italy, I didn't realise you meant today. He looks just like you."
The older Zingaro grinned with the undeniable pride of a father as he watched his son's departure. "But not nearly the cocky bastardo I was when I was his age. He has his mother's temperament."
He had mentioned his late wife several times over the course of our acquaintance, even showing me her faded photo that he kept in his wallet. She was beautiful, with the sort of long-legged elegance you found in Hollywood's Golden Age.
"Cool and rational then." I could most definitely see that.
He nodded. "It was what drew me to her initially. It will come as no surprise to you that I was a man who could easily have any woman."
"Except the one you really wanted." I knew this story. He was basically the living, breathing personification of practically every romance plot I'd ever read. "But you won her over in the end."
"I did." His voice faded with the apparent lump that had formed in his throat.
There was a pain in my chest as I felt my heart break for him, the realisation only just hitting me; this was a man who was only one half of what he was once.
"Giuseppe…" I started but really what could I say that he hadn't already heard? My hand found its way to his arm and he glanced down at it, momentarily startled by the contact. A smile tugged at his lips but it didn't reach his eyes and he sighed as though to push the familiar wave of grief away.
"Grazie." He gave my hand a pat. "My hope is that Alessandro finds the love that I knew. That is my only wish."
Tears leaked into my vision which I forced away with a series of blinks. Instead, I pushed a smile across my face. "I better let you get back to Alessandro's visit. My train should be arriving soon."
I went to leave but Giuseppe held me tight, stilling me in my place.
"Have lunch with us, Lizbeth," he said.
"I'll miss my train."
But he simply shrugged. "I will arrange to have you driven home. There is no need to worry about that. Come. Dine with us, Lizbeth. Alessandro won't mind. It will do him good to properly make your acquaintance now so that you can show him around later. Like you promised."
I swallowed, my stomach doing summersaults as images of that blue-eyed, brooding Italian crashed through my skull. Alessandro was the epitome of 'instant crush'. There was no denying he did things to me. Things that had women swooning and dropping undies. My glance swept back to Giuseppe who waited for my answer with the patience of a saint. He had that look about him that told me he wasn't going to take no for an answer, and I had to admit, I was pretty hungry.
"Alright Giuseppe," I finally said. "You've twisted my arm. Lunch sounds good."