Note: Quality in the Reader is absolutely atrocious. I recommend reading on the site proper.
Gina loosened the soil around the dandelion and tried to wiggle it free. The damned thing had a long, thick root that was enmeshed with that of the tomato plant. When she got deep in there and tore at it, she could feel the tomato plant move as well. She let out a few muted curses and gave the weed another good wiggle. It nearly sent the tomato plant toppling. She yanked hard on the root, and it broke, leaving a good ten centimetres lodged in the soil. It would be back, she thought as she tossed it aside. They always came back.
She covered the plant and made sure it still stood stably. The fruits were as good as ripe, though her dad had asked that she leave them for a few days. He wanted to bring a few to her mum’s cabin when he left, as he did more and more often lately. He had told her she didn’t need to tend to them at all, but after the events of last night, she wanted to work with her hands.
She turned to the next lucky plant and started tearing at the weeds. Another menacing dandelion was about to fall to her hands when she heard a knock on the greenhouse glass.
Then the last voice she wanted to hear:
“You don’t look like you’ve been arrested.”
She turned slowly and met Enzo’s eyes. “Fuck off.”
He held up his hands, as if in surrender, and said:
“I’m not going to try and get you arrested again, if that’s what you think. Apparently that’s impossible around here. I want to talk to you about that so-called forgery.”
Gina stood up and walked over to him. Despite her being nearly a head smaller than him, he flinched a little when she came close.
“That’s funny, because I don’t want to talk to you at all. Fuck. Off. Or I’m going to shoot you.”
“How are you so sure the painting is forged?” he pressed on.
“I’m going to get my gun,” Gina said. “I suggest you go away now.”
“Trust me, I’d love to leave, but I need to know if that painting is fake.”
“It is,” she said.
“If that’s true, I need the real painting, fast.”
“Don’t we all.”
She walked past him, making sure to elbow him in the side so that he ended up groaning in pain. Perhaps she really would shoot him. Her dad generally said not to shoot people without a good cause… so that must mean this time it was perfectly okay. She fully tended to at least get it to scare him off, but then his next words stopped her.
“I want to hire you to find the real painting.”
Gina turned on her heel and regarded him. He looked utterly serious, but he had to be joking.
“Someone else already hired me to get the real painting,” she said, “so why don’t you go home and wait it out? Once my client has it back, you can have it stolen from them.”
“You’re… telling me to steal from your client?”
Gina rolled her eyes. “Oh, sorry, I shouldn’t be telling you how to do your job. You’ve done the rich asshole shtick all your life, so you know how it works.”
Enzo groaned. “I don’t have time for all this. I need that painting and I need it soon.”
“And you think I should care, because…?”
He ran a hand down over his face.
“You shouldn’t, I get that,” he said. “But I really, really have to have it. If I don’t…”
She noticed now that he was shaking—he tried to disguise it with a casual shrug and a lifted eyebrow, though it was no good. The look in his eyes was one of deep desperation that gave her a measure of satisfaction. Yet at the same time…
“Someone have a gun to your head?” she asked.
Enzo sighed. “Not exactly. But I’m willing to pay you. I don’t even need to keep the painting. Just let me have it for a week or two and then you can give it to your other client. I’ll pay double what they’re paying.”
Gina tried not to look shocked, but her mouth dropped open without her having much of a choice in the matter.
“Do you know how much we charge for a job like that? How fucking desperate are you?”
“Very. I need the painting within a month, and if I thought I had any other choice, I’d ask someone else.”
“This better not be a joke, because if we don’t get paid…”
He assured her that it wasn’t a joke and he would even pay in advance if needed. So long as he got the painting. It was literally the best deal anyone had ever given her. She would be insane to say no. The gang would rebel if they learnt she’d passed up that amount of money because of a teenage fling gone wrong. Her reputation would take a hit. He had thought about it long and hard, she realised, looking into his eyes. Besides the panic, there was a little bit of triumph there.
Fuck you, Cavalcante. Fuck you so, so hard.
“You’d better come talk to my dad,” she said with gritted teeth.
His eyes widened in alarm. “I don’t think that’s necessary…”
“Yes it is, he’s still the boss. Follow me, dumbass.”
She waved for him to come with her, and he hesitated before going.
Her dad was inside, paint brush in hand. It was a familiar sight, him in front of the easel, adding colourful shapes to the canvas. On any other day she might have felt nostalgic, felt a twang of pain at knowing he would retire. Today, though, she tossed her hat and gardening gloves before marching up to him with a pout.
When Carlo noticed her coming, he put the paints and brush down, wiped his hands on a rag, and turned to her with a smile that crinkled the skin at his eyes.
“Hi, sweetheart. You look like you want to shoot someone,” he told her, and then his eyes fell on Enzo. “Now, who…?”
Gina smiled sardonically. “You told me not to shoot clients, so I’m afraid I can’t. This is Vincente Edoardo Luigi Cavalcante VII. He wants to hire us.”
Enzo winced next to her.
“Please, just Enzo…” he said, though his words got drowned by Carlo’s laughter.
“I seem to remember that name,” he said.
Gina snorted. “It’s hard to forget.”
Carlo stepped forward and shook Enzo’s hand firmly, once again amazing his daughter. He had a true gift for making the scum of the earth feel like he liked them.
“What can we do for you?”
Gina explained what he had told her—the painting he wanted, the deadline, the absurd amount of money he would pay for their services. Even her dad couldn’t keep the surprise entirely off his face. He knew well they couldn’t turn him down.
“Since we’re already looking for the painting, it wouldn’t hurt,” her dad said. “You’re the expert, so it would be your job. Are you okay with it?”
There was clear concern in his voice. It was less a concern for her mental well-being this time, and more for their client’s physical health.
“I’m already looking for it, so why not.”
“In that case, Mr. Cavalcante, we’ll take you on as a client. You give all the details to Regina, and she’ll find what you need. We’ll discuss payment soon.”
Enzo nodded and said goodbye, then Gina took him outside again.
Each step she took, she repeated like a mantra to herself: I’m a professional and he’s a client. I’m a professional and he’s a client…
They turned to face each other on the edge of the property.
“I want to talk to your appraiser,” she told him without any preamble. “I’ll swing by your place tomorrow with a colleague and he needs to be there. I’d prefer it if you weren’t.”
“I’ve already had it appraised.”
“Yes, but since you’re a giant idiot, I assume your appraiser is a fraud. Sometimes they work with forgers. If he does, we probably know him.”
Enzo hesitated for a while, but agreed. He added: “I want to be there myself.”
“Great,” she said with a silent reminder to not shoot clients. “Just… great. See you, then.”
She turned to walk back to the house, but he interrupted her:
“Thank you, Regina.”
Gina glanced over her shoulder. He looked too pleased with himself for her taste.
“Don’t thank me,” she said back. “You know very well that I have no choice.”
“All the same,” he said with a casual shrug. “I’m grateful.”
She scoffed and walked back in.
I’m a professional and he’s a client. I’m a professional…
Enzo still shook when he got back to the holiday home. The heat was unbearable, and he felt like Regina Mancini’s dark, angry eyes followed him all the way. He was relieved to be able to walk into the airconditioned living room, until he saw Lorenzo and Rosalia. His sister was supposed to be home, taking care of the engagement party, and yet there she was.
“Really?” Enzo said, directed towards Lorenzo. “Why don’t you tell on me to my dad while you’re at it?”
“She has a right to know,” Lorenzo said, and Enzo saw him squeeze his sister’s arm.
“Well, I… I was going to tell,” he lied.
Rosalia hadn’t said a word until now and she didn’t look at Enzo. She looked immaculate. Her dark hair was smooth, shiny, and neatly styled. When she lifted her head to look at him, her face was as flawless. She wasn’t crying, though he felt sure she would have had dark circles under her eyes if the make-up hadn’t covered them.
“Is it true?” she asked.
“You’re supposed to be taking care of the engagement party,” he told her, ignoring the question.
“Lorenzo called me. He said that the painting is a forgery and now you’re seeing the criminal girl again.”
He glared at his friend. Lorenzo had always stopped short of telling his dad what he was doing, but he and Lia were thick as thieves. They had always had it as their sworn mission to keep him out of trouble, no matter what.
“That’s wildly exaggerated,” he told his sister.
Rosalia removed Lorenzo’s arm from around her shoulder and asked him to leave them alone. Lorenzo hesitated, but she pressed an insisting kiss to his cheek and he had to relent. Enzo stopped himself from commenting on their blatant displays of affection. His sister turned to face him.
“So, it’s not a forgery?”
He sighed. “Actually, that part’s not exaggerated. Apparently it is.”
“And you haven’t seen the criminal?”
His mouth opened, then shut, and after a pause he said: “Okay, maybe there’s some truth to it, but—”
“Vinny, this is insane,” she said.
“Look who’s talking. The second Lorenzo calls, you’re here. What did your fiancé say when you went to see your childhood boyfriend?”
“I’m not engaged yet,” she snapped back.
“No but you’re going to be soon, and if anyone sees you with Lorenzo—”
“They’re going to think I’m seeing a good friend. What happens if someone sees you with a notorious criminal?”
“Nobody will…” Enzo took a deep breath, fighting the rising anger. “I’m not sleeping with Regina, if that’s what you think. I went there on business, to hire her gang to find the real painting. If there’s any gang who can find the real painting, it’s the Good Guys.”
His sister still didn’t look convinced.
“Look, I’ll get this sorted,” he assured her. “The deal I gave her is too good to pass up. They can’t refuse to help, and they can’t refuse to do their best. I’ve got this.”
He held out his arms to her, but she took a step back and shook her head.
“How do you know this won’t go completely wrong?”
“I’m your big brother and it’s my job. That’s how.”
It was a hard sell, he knew, and it didn’t help that he was trying to convince himself as much as her. His sister’s big, blue eyes betrayed nothing. Lia was tall and proud and always the voice of reason despite her youth. It was only him—and maybe Lorenzo—who could tell when something was wrong. Only in the little tremble of her hands, in the draw of her mouth, could you see that things weren’t as they should be.
“I don’t know,” she said, voice thick. “I’m… I don’t think I can handle this alone. That’s why I came as soon as Lorenzo called, because I need him so badly right now. I need you both. I don’t want to be alone with this.”
Enzo walked close and pulled his sister into his arms.
“You’re not,” he said, pressing her close.
He stroked her back and she sounded less angry when she spoke again, even if her muscles were still tense.
“I just don’t see why you believe that it’s forged,” Rosalia said, looking up at him with sad eyes. “Lorenzo is sure she’s lying, so why aren’t you?”
“We can’t take the risk, Lia.”
His sister nodded and rested her head back against him.
“Please don’t leave me alone with this, Vinny.”
“I won’t. I promise.”
If you need a recap of previous events, you can head to my recap page.
Author’s notes: I nearly forgot to add my author’s note! What a tragedy (or not).
Anywayyy, I don’t think there’s much to say about this one. Should speak for itself. What I do want to talk about is all the damn stories I’m writing. A while back I promised a side story about Giuliano and Flora within a month or two, but now I have to say it’s probably not going to happen. The past few days I’ve been juggling four stories at once, and it’s a nightmare. I’m doing a lot more image editing lately (so much for me ‘only editing a little bit’), and I’m slowly, slowly, much too slowly, starting the sequel to Champion of Moonlight. I can’t be writing the side story and casually editing the first generation as well as writing this and the Ink Charts. The stressful state I put myself into literally kept me awake last night. For now, I want to focus my energy here and on the Ink Charts. Sorry about that.
Well, this was a mercifully short author’s note, so I’ll leave you guys for now. Thank you for reading if you made it this far and have an amazing day,