Signora Francesca Ginori reclined on the decades old chaise lounge enjoying the quiet summer afternoon. A soft breeze flittered in through the large open doors and caressed her skin. Closing her eyes, she strained her old ears to listen to the sounds of birds twittering and fluttering in the trees that lined her terraced patio. As the wind caressed the leaves, the sound reminded her of waves crashing against the ocean. Of all the rooms in her home, this was her favorite. Bright yet tranquil, it was her safe haven.
A peaceful, calm atmosphere had settled over her home years ago, one she rather enjoyed. Long gone were the days of parties that lasted until dawn, people coming and going and the general excitement one experiences in their youth. Her children no longer filled the rooms with laughter or music or whimsy, for they were all grown with children and even grandchildren of their own. Though they would visit at least once a year, it was not at all the same. Nothing was the same any more.
In her youth, she would have felt quite guilty for lying about, but at eighty years of age, she felt no such compunction.
She also felt no remorse for being barefoot outside her sleeping chamber. Social niceties be-damned. She loved being barefoot and enjoyed walking across the cool marble floors of her home or even out-of-doors in the lush green grass of her gardens. Some might consider her an eccentric and feeble-minded old woman, but Francesca knew she was anything but that. Her body might be eighty years old, but her mind? Her mind was just as sharp as it had always been.
The old, soft, worn purple velvet of the chaise felt good against her feet. When she thought of the stories the chaise lounge could tell were it able to talk, a rather cheeky smile lit her face as her cheeks flushed. It was probably a very good thing it could not talk. This chaise had been one of the first pieces of furniture she had ever called her own. Older than she, but by how many years or decades was anyone’s guess. Ah, but the stories it could tell.
Francesca let loose a heavy breath of frustration when she heard her maid, Leena, quietly speak her name from just a few steps away. Leena had been with her for nearly fifteen years now and knew better than to interrupt when she was napping. “Si?” she answered, keeping her eyes closed and wanting very much to be left alone to enjoy what few blissfully quiet afternoons she might have left on this earth.
“There is a man at the door and he says it is urgent that he speak to you. He says he has news of the death of an old friend of yours.”
Francesca’s brow arched in confusion. She had outlived all of her friends. She tried searching her mind for anyone who might still be left but could think of no one other than her butler Emburto, who she was quite certain was still alive for she had just shared a glass of sherry with him not more than an hour before. With her curiosity piqued, she reluctantly opened her eyes and allowed Leena to help her sit. “Did he give you the name of this old friend?”
“No, Signora, he did not, only that it is important he speak to you.”
Francesca huffed derisively. “More likely than not he is some beggar come to ask for money.”
Leena smiled and shook her head. “I think he is too well dressed to be a beggar, as well as too clean.”
Francesca’s brow rose again. “I have learned that beggars come in all shapes, sizes, and forms of dress.”
Leena knew better than to argue. “Shall I bring refreshments?”
“No,” Francesca said. “I am certain he will not be here long. Show him in.”
After Leena helped her into her slippers, Francesca waited rather impatiently for this stranger to appear in her salon. If he turned out to be nothing more than a beggar, she would instruct Emburto to show the man out by the heel of his booted foot. As she waited, she searched her mind once again in hopes of remembering some old friend who might still be left. Though she was getting on in years, she knew she was not so feeble-minded as to forget the truly important things, such as old friends.
Moments later, Leena returned with the stranger.
It was all Francesca could do to keep from gasping. Slowly, using her walking stick for ballast, she stood as upright as her old frame would allow and fought back the urge to weep. Old memories — many dear and sweet while others were painful enough to make her chest ache — came flooding through. The sight of this man, the surge of memories, of feelings she thought she had buried long ago, made her head swim.
Before he uttered a word, Francesca knew exactly who the man was.
With his dark wavy hair, bright blue eyes and olive skin--though he was not quite as big as the original he was undoubtedly bred from--he was every bit the image of Zanosi Di'Torinto. How many years had it been? Thirty? Forty?
Francesca felt the blood rush from her head as her chest constricted around her heart. Thankfully, Leena was close enough to catch her before she fell to the floor.
“Signora!” Leena gasped as she caught her around the waist.
In a flash, with the lithe movements of a lion, the stranger was also helping her back to her feet and setting her upon the chaise.
“Signora?” Leena repeated, concern and worry etched in her face and prevalent in her tone. “What is the matter?”
The stranger spoke then, his voice as soft as silk. Yes, he was every bit Zanosi’s twin, though he was a good 50 years younger. “Perhaps some water?” he said to Leena.
Francesca finally pulled her eyes away from the handsome young man and found her voice. “No. No water. Vino.”
Leena draped a light blanket across Francesca’s lap and began to check for signs of fever or other illness. “Are you dizzy, signora? Feverish?”
Francesca lightly slapped her hand away. “I am fine. I simply stood too fast. Now please, bring me some vino and tell Emburto I wish to see him.”
The middle-aged woman’s face screwed into a knot of frustration. She sighed in defeat, rose, and went in search of vino and Emburto.
“Are you certain you are well, mia signora?” the stranger asked as he knelt before her like an ancient knight before his queen.
Francesca stifled the laugh the mental image brought forth.
“Si,” she answered quietly. “I simply stood too fast. Please, sit down,” she told him as she waved to the blue tufted chair to her immediate right.
He eyed her cautiously for a moment before he finally took the offered seat. It was quite difficult for her not to stare at him. One question piled on top of another in rapid succession. Burning questions such as to how this young man came to be in her salon. Then she remembered what Leena had said. The death of an old friend.
Zanosi Di’Torinto was the old friend and this young man was here to tell her he had passed away. Mustering up all the energy and strength she could manage, she feigned ignorance. She would have to in order to keep her true identity and those closely guarded secrets in the past where they belonged.
“Who are you?” she asked, pretending she was not in the least curious or affected by his presence. It was not an easy task, what with her heart trying to pound its way out of her chest.
He smiled at her as if he could read her feigned disinterest. Just like Zanosi she thought to herself.
“I am Matteo Di’Torinto, grandson of Zanosi Di’Torinto.”
She prayed he could not hear the pounding in her heart or see the tremor in her fingers. While she could try to pass it off as the effects of old age, something in those blue eyes staring back at her warned he would not believe her. “I am sorry, but that name is not familiar to me. But then, my memory is not what it used to be.” It was a full out lie.
Zanosi Di’Torinto had been the man who pulled her out of the darkness, kept her from having to live a life on the cold, back streets of Turin. Not only had he saved her life, he had, without knowing it at the time, given her a life she would never have thought possible. He had done more than simply kept her from having to sell her body for pennies just to survive. So much more than that. She had not seen him in many years and it wasn’t because she had no desire to. No, they had been forced to part ways in order to save countless lives. A deep pang of regret stabbed through her heart with the knowledge that he was gone.
She could see from Matteo’s expression that he did not believe her. “My grandfather passed away almost five years ago, mia signora. It was his dying wish that I find you and give you this.”
She had not noticed the satchel until he bent to pull something from it. A long, slender box, unmistakably meant to hold a necklace. Without a word, he gently placed it in her lap.
Francesca stared at it as if it were something she’d never seen before. The box might not be the same, but in her heart of hearts she felt quite certain she knew what it contained. She could not find the strength to open it. Opening the box would be the same as opening a door to her past. The life she lived before she was Francesca Ginori. The life she had left behind, buried, forgotten.