Lia stepped out of the car and right into a deep mud puddle. She felt her heel sink in with a sickening, squishy sensation and had to grab the car roof to not sink in further. The rainstorms of the last few days had turned the whole forest into a muddy nightmare, already difficult enough to drive through to get to the far-off cabin. And now her best heels were ruined.
“You okay there, Lia?” called Costanza from inside the car.
“Perfectly,” she said through gritted teeth.
Constanza got out of the driver’s seat and took a deep breath through the nose, her face lighting up like it was kissed by the sun.
“Oh, I do love this place,” she said. “I know you’ll love it, too, Lia.”
Lia looked up, trying to scrape mud from her shoe with a stick. She reminded herself of her work and how important this was—it was her chance to gain valuable experience and possibly to make a name for herself as a journalist… That didn’t mean she would love it, however.
“I’m sure I shall love it,” Lia lied with as bright a smile as she could muster.
It was a white lie, but Lia thought it necessary. Besides wanting to get ahead in her career, she wanted to better herself. Her relationship with Costanza hadn’t always been as jovial as it was now and her insides still twisted, thinking of the things she said. If Lia had been in Costanza’s shoes, she wouldn’t have spoken to her again, let alone befriended her… but that was why she was married to Lorenzo and Lia wasn’t.
“I used to love coming here when I was younger,” Costanza continued, looking around the place with a dreamy sigh, “but we got to go so rarely.”
Lia, finally done scraping her shoe, took a careful step mostly on her toes to see if she could keep from sinking in again. She managed a few steps, then the other shoe sank.
“You don’t want to wear shoes like that out here,” said a gruff voice.
Lia looked up with equal parts excitement and apprehension. The man who owned the house was the son of an author she had enjoyed unusually much. So much so, in fact, that she would have gladly gone to one of those ghastly signing events with long lines of people, just to get a signature. Of course, her father never would have allowed it and Stefano Como died before she moved out, so now all that was left of him besides the books was the man who stood looking at her stiffly.
Teodoro Como. He was a broad-shouldered man with a square jaw and dark grey eyes. His hair had streaks of grey, despite the fact that he couldn’t have turned forty. However, most striking of all was his size. He was tall, much taller than average, with strong arms and a chest that bulged with muscles.
She had never understood the appeal of this type of man. His shirt wasn’t tucked in, his boots were dirty, and the hand he offered her was rough with the kind of callouses you only got from working hard every day. Lia knew that some women were mad for this kind of man—someone who was good with his hands, who exuded a casual, masculine kind of aura. She would have sworn it had no effect on her whatsoever and yet… something about him was attractive.
“Teodoro Como, I assume?” she said.
He nodded shortly and replied in a deep, rumbling voice: “The very same. You’re the journalist lady?” he asked.
“Rosalia Cavalcante,” she said, feeling a little embarrassed that she felt chills running down her spine at the sound of his voice. “I’m very happy you agreed to consider me for the biography, Mr. Como.”
He made a non-committal sound in his throat and turned to Costanza. Lia blinked a few times, thinking it must be circumstance. He must be in bad sorts today to act like this. He wasn’t… actually like this ordinarily. Surely.
“It’s so good to see you, cousin Teo,” said Costanza, walking over to give him a hug. “I hope you don’t mind my coming as well. I only wanted to make sure Lia could find her way.” When he spoke again, it was with an annoyed grunt.
“Sure, if she couldn’t find it herself, I guess it was necessary… You should probably come inside.”
Then he abruptly turned around and went into the cabin. So, she must assume, he was like this. Lia blinked, then felt cool anger stirring in her chest and her girlish attraction vanished. She looked at Teo’s back and turned to Costanza, who smiled apologetically.
“I think I mentioned he’s something of a hermit.” Her voice was low, so it wouldn’t travel inside.
“He’s intolerably rude,” Lia whispered back.
“He doesn’t see a lot people, so he doesn’t always know how to be polite around others, but it’s worth it. I mean, he built this place all by himself—it’s impressive, isn’t it?”
Costanza looked up at the building and Lia followed her gaze to the walls this man had erected himself. It was built of stacked logs and had tall windows that came to a peak under slanted roofs. This was an impressive feat for one man to have built… at least she guessed so, as she didn’t know the first thing about building.
Just then, he happened to stick his head out the door.
“I’m supposed to offer you things, right? Tea? Coffee?”
Both of them said tea was fine and they walked inside. The room they had entered was a kitchen and dining area that smelled of lavender, sage, and freshly baked bread. There was obviously electricity in the house, but the oven wasn’t a regular one or even one running on gas—it was a wood-burning stove built of bricks, with a fire crackling behind a glass door and the room was marked by the scent of wood smoke.
Ahead of her was an entry to the living room, a room which had tall windows that let in the last, golden light of the afternoon sun. In there, too, was a fireplace, as well as tall, heavy bookcases and brown leather furniture. She was half-tempted to go exploring in the house, to see if there were any hints of the father, but then the son’s voice reminded her where she was.
“You can sit. I mean, unless you’d rather just stand around like that…”
Lia plastered a lovely smile on her face, hoping that she had masked her anger in time. She did try so hard to be pleasant, even when the people she spoke to didn’t make it easy.
They took a seat around the kitchen table, though not until Costanza had sent her another apologetic look. Teo was on a stool that was small for his size and which creaked ominously under his weight.
“So,” he said looking at Lia, “you want to write the rest of the book about me?”
“Yes, it was Costanza’s suggestion.”
Costanza beamed, but her cousin obviously didn’t share her excitement.
“Why did you say yes?” he asked.
Lia cocked her head. “I’m interested. I heard about the place you’ve built here as well as the connection with your father—obviously I’m interested in both your life and how his books have affected the work you’ve done here.”
He looked into the ceiling, muttering something under his breath. After a while, he looked at her. “My dad had nothing to do with this place. Never saw it before he died.”
“Everyone is influenced to some degree by their parents, even when they’re no longer there.”
I would know.
“Yeah, well I don’t really want him to be part of the biography at all,” Teo grunted. “Don’t see why it needs to be about him. I don’t want it to get too personal.”
The kettle on the stove whistled as the water boiled inside, and Teo went to take it off and make tea.
He wants me to write a biography… that’s not personal? Lia thought.
She shared a look with Costanza, whose face seemed stuck in apology—if this kept going, her expression would never return to normal. Teo set tea out for each of them and they drank in awkward silence. The first to break it was Costanza and her voice was less like happy birdsong than usual, even though she obviously tried.
“I’m sure a biography about you would be just lovely,” she said, “and it would be an important selling point that Stefano Como is your dad. Don’t you see? People are so interested in him and they’ll love a book about his son.”
He shook his head. “I guess.”
Lia wasn’t sure if she wanted to bury her head in her hands or scream at him. She had, of course, heard the old adage that you shouldn’t meet your heroes, but nobody had warned her of meeting her hero’s son. She angled her legs towards the door so she would be able to make a quick escape and she noticed that Teo had moved his stool further from the table, creating more distance between them.
“How do you want to start working, Lia?” Costanza asked. As always, she read the room and tried to ease the tension.
“I’ll start with the data the other journalists gathered. Do you still have it?”
“Yeah. Give me a minute.” Teo’s shoulders sank in relief.
He walked off to the song of creaky floorboards and as soon as he was gone, Costanza turned to Lia with a pleading look in her eyes.
“Please give it a chance,” she said in a low voice. “I know he’s rough around the edges, but I promise he’s a sweetheart and he needs your help.”
Lia had trouble imagining Teo was a sweetheart. Attractive, yes. Interesting, without a shadow of a doubt… but sweet? She shook her head and his cousin defended him quickly.
“I swear, he’s like this with all strangers. The first time I brought Lorenzo out here, he communicated in nothing but grunts and monosyllables. Now that he’s used to him, he’s much more jovial.” Costanza reached over and placed a hand on Lia’s arm. “It would mean so much to me if you would consider it. He moved out here to get away from everything and it would be hard for him if he had to leave.”
“Get away from everything? What is everything?”
“I don’t know.” Costanza took her hand back and wrung it. “He wouldn’t say and he always rejects any offers of help.”
Costanza looked at her pleadingly just as Teo came back in the room with a binder.
“Here are all the things they gathered,” he said, putting it on the table in front of her. “You can bring it with you and read it; if you still want to do it after that, we’ll talk.”
Lia bit back a question—Why do you expect me back off after reading the notes?—and leafed through the binder… She would need to read it closely later, but it seemed like they were ordinary notes, a mix of handwritten and typed.
“I’d love to,” she said. “When I’ve read it I’ll come back and we can talk.”
“Sure,” he grumbled.
Costanza sprang out of her seat. “Well, in that case, we won’t bother you anymore, Teo.”
She gave him another hug, as well as a kiss on the cheek, and this time he returned the hug, which made this the first hint of affection for his cousin. Lia said her goodbyes as well and then the two of them walked to the car and left the cabin behind. Lia clutched the binder to her chest, her head pounding unpleasantly the whole walk; it wasn’t helped by her heels sinking into the ground again.
They were silent for a while after driving off and when Costanza’s voice cracked the silence, it was unsure and careful. Her eyes bled concern for Teo, a casual display of emotion that made it obvious why Lorenzo fell for her. He, too, was an openly warm and caring person, much like his wife.
“I know he’s not easy to get along with,” Costanza said, “but if you’d consider helping, I know he’ll be grateful.”
“I… Costanza, he doesn’t seem to want it written at all.”
She winced. “I know. The other journalists… there’s a reason they quit. He may not be easy to work with until he gets to know you.”
“I don’t know. Why would I have more luck than the others? I’ve been doing this for no more than a year and I still do stories on ducks being saved from storm drains.”
Costanza stopped at a T-crossing and looked around before turning right, down a proper asphalt road that led back to the city.
“I believe you can do it, Lia. Lorenzo always says that you’re very astute and intelligent—he suggested I talk to you, in fact.”
Lia bit her tongue to keep what she wanted to say from spilling out: But Lorenzo hates me. What Costanza was saying sounded sweet, but obviously it was something she had invented. Though Lia and Lorenzo had been close once—close enough that spending time with his wife was slightly awkward—they weren’t any longer. These days they were civil when they met at her brothers’ house, but his wife was friendlier with her than he was.
Finally, after a long silence, Costanza spoke again.
“Please say you’ll try, Lia. Please.”
Lia didn’t answer right away, but even while she mulled it over, she knew there was no way she could say no. Yes, Teo was a curmudgeon, but he was the son of her favourite author, and he was willing to let her take a stab at it, despite the fact that she was a new journalist with barely a years’ experience.
Most vitally, it was her chance to show that she had made something of herself. A biography with her name on it would almost seem like proof. Something physical to thrust in the face of all the people who said she was nothing but a pretty face, who wouldn’t amount to anything but a trophy wife.
Finally, she nodded even though Costanza’s eyes were firmly on the road.
“I’ll do it,” she said.
Author’s notes: Hi guys! I hope you enjoyed this first chapter of Heartwood. This is pretty much me back again, though with a caveat. Back when doing gen 2 with the schedule, I didn’t feel like I could do anything but generation 2 and it’s not my style. I like doing multiple stories at a time
because I have no sense of self-preservation, so this time I don’t have a set schedule. I’ll endeavour to get a chapter out every other week like I used to, but if it slips because I’m busy starting yet another project I’ll never share or just gaming a lot, that’s what it is. I hope that’s okay to you all.
Thanks so much if you read through all of this for some reason and I’ll see you in the next post.