The museum smelt of varnish and wood and memories. The room didn’t look quite the same as it had when Carlo was a child, but it always gave him the same feeling. He felt small again, faced with the works of the old masters. As a child, he had been bored walking these floors, but now he wished he could have the chance to do it all over again. What he wouldn’t give to be bored in the museum while Marco Mancini was still alive and painting.
He could see the old man clearly in front of his mind’s eye now, with rough, calloused hands that looked like they belonged on a factory worker rather than an artist. But an artist he was. He painted beautiful things and saw the good in everything, even in Carlo. Even when he had to pick his son up from yet another shop where he’d been caught shoplifting, he tried to keep him honest. It was all for naught, in the end.
It was a good thing his dad hadn’t been there to witness his induction into the gang, but all the same, he had a faint hope he would have understood that he did what he had to for Camillo.
“Oh, I’ve been meaning to see this one!”
Paolina grasped Carlo’s hand and pulled him out of the darkness and into the light. Sweet, sweet Paolina. She dragged him towards a work by Seurat, a colourful landscape that tried to outshine her eyes.
“I’ve always loved Seurat,” she said with a smile. “What do you think?”
She looked at him expectantly and he resisted the temptation to brush the hair out of her eyes.
“I can’t say I’m an expert,” he said. “I’m not like my dad.”
“So you have an art lover in the family?”
“Had, he’s dead.”
Her face fell. “I’m so sorry, I didn’t mean to…”
“Don’t worry. It’s been many years now. But well, he was an art lover, an artist. Self-taught. He used to come here and copy the artworks to learn from them and their work. He became something of a local celebrity, as a matter of fact, though none of his works ever made it here.” He motioned around the room.
“And how about yourself?” she asked.
“My works never made it here either.”
Paolina stopped with an excitable smile on her face. “Wait, you’re an artist?”
Carlo ran a hand through his hair. “Hardly. I dabble.”
“Ah, but that’s wonderful, Carlo. Will you show me your work some day?”
“It’s nothing great.”
She grabbed his hand and he got chills. Her sincere, sweet enthusiasm was intoxicating.
“Promise me you will. I’ll show you mine if you show me—” She stopped herself and coughed. “T-that came out wrong.”
Carlo laughed and took her hand in his to place a kiss on the knuckles.
“Paolina, if it pleases you, I’ll show you.”
She beamed and he noticed that she did a little shift towards him. It was barely noticeable, but he saw and moved swiftly to be close to her and breathe in her scent of lavender. A blush bloomed on her cheeks at the closeness, but she didn’t move away.
“I look forward to that,” she said in a low voice.
She bit her lip and looked down as the blush deepened. Carlo lifted her face up to his.
“What is it?” he asked gently.
“You’re just so… different,” she said, breathless. “I never expected this.”
“Neither did I,” he said.
Carlo looked at her with a question in his eyes, waiting for her nod before he snuck a hand onto the small of her back and drew her close. Her blue eyes shone beautifully and her body adjusted to his. He smiled while moving in for a kiss, but he didn’t make it that far—a familiar voice cut through the silence in the museum, stopping him in his tracks.
“Well it doesn’t fucking look like anything.”
Carlo paused and drew away.
You have got to be kidding me.
“What…?” Paolina asked, blinking as if she came out of a daze, and then her eyes landed on none other than Vittoria Nespola.
She was leaning on one of the fences that kept visitors from the paintings—one that specifically said Don’t Touch—her arms crossed over her chest. She wore the same clothing as she had this morning, though at some point during the day she had let her hair down. Alonzo was with her, looking annoyed.
“But that’s the point!” he said, throwing up his hands. “It’s art! It doesn’t have to look like anything!”
“If it’s worth a billion, it should look like a real thing. At the least, he could paint a goddamned horse or something.”
Next to Carlo, Paolina scratched her head. “Um, is that the woman who…?”
“Stalked me and ruined our date?” Carlo said through gritted teeth. “Yes, that’s her.”
Paolina looked worried. “Is everything okay? Do we need to go?”
For a moment, Carlo turned his attention away from the two people to put a comforting hand on Paolina’s shoulder. He explained calmly why Vittoria had followed him and that it was nothing to be worried about.
“That said, I still need to have a word with her.”
He prowled towards his houseguest and his subordinate and as soon as he drew near, Alonzo straightened up and looked at him.
Vittoria turned and looked at him with a wide smirk. “Oh hey, fancy meeting you here.” Her gaze then fell on Paolina and her smile grew impossibly wider. “And your date. I hoped I’d get a chance to apologise.”
She held out a hand to Paolina who shook it politely.
“Vittoria. Sorry about last night. I was stalking your date, but I didn’t mean anything by it.”
“Um, that’s okay,” Paolina replied. “Great to meet you.”
Her voice raised a little at the end of her sentence, so it sounded like a question. Was it great to meet her? Vittoria didn’t make any note of her hesitation, if she even noticed. Before she could open her mouth again, Carlo stopped her and motioned to the side.
“Vittoria, a word?”
She shrugged and walked in the direction he had pointed out. He made sure that Paolina would be okay with Alonzo before he left and he added to his date: “I’m so sorry about this.”
Then he stalked over to Vittoria. When he walked up next to her, she cocked her head and smiled.
“How’s it going, big guy?” she said, wagging her eyebrows.
Carlo sighed. “It was going very well before you decided to stalk me again. We talked about this… and don’t call me ‘big guy’.”
She turned, arms crossed. “I wasn’t stalking you. I’m seeing the town with Alonzo, like you said I could.”
“Oh, and you just happened to choose the same location as my date?”
“Alonzo suggested that we go here. You can ask him. You just told me not to go outside without a babysitter.”
“And why would you choose an art museum when you clearly care nothing for art?”
She rolled her eyes. “It was Alonzo’s idea. Christ, don’t you get tired, being this paranoid?”
“My best friend was murdered in front of my eyes, so I’d say I have good reason to be paranoid. Especially when my house guest who doesn’t exist just happens to turn up when I’m trying to relax for once.”
Vittoria’s body jerked and she glared up at him. “Pardon me? I don’t exist?”
“There are no records of you. So either you’re some sort of fairy or ghost or you’re using a fake name.”
“Of course I use a fake fucking name,” she spat. “What did you expect—that I’d waltz up to your door, spill all my secrets, and hand over my birth certificate? Sounds like a great way to get myself murdered.”
“So what’s your real name?”
“Seriously? I just told you exactly why I’m not telling you that.”
Carlo ran his hands through his hair and took a deep breath to keep his anger down.
“I’ve already agreed to let you stay, so why keep it from me?”
She rolled her eyes. “You’re a fucking gang leader, Carlo. A big old mafioso who leaves horse heads in people’s beds and shit.” He started saying he did no such thing, but she held up a hand and stopped him. “I have experience with a certain gang leader and it never did anything good for me, so excuse me if I’m being careful.”
He noticed that, like the night before, she touched her neck and looked uncomfortable. He felt a sudden stab of sympathy, looking at her. Whatever she had been through, it had left marks, even if they weren’t visible marks on her skin. Carlo took a deep breath and said her name to get her to look at him. She did so reluctantly.
“You’re safe,” he said simply. “Yes, I’m a gang leader, but I gave you my word that you could stay at my house and so long as you do, you’re under my protection. I swear.”
For a moment, she looked at him and all of her radiated vulnerability. It was just a moment. He could tell she had trained to draw a veil over her face to hide any little weakness. When it slid in place, her smile was back, even if it was a little less mischievous than usual.
“Right, if you’re sure.”
“I am. You have my word.”
“Okay. That’s good.”
Her smile warmed up and he returned it. It would be hard not to return her smiles, he thought, as they had that absolutely radiant quality to them. She wasn’t traditionally beautiful, with the odd angles of her face and the crook of her nose, but the smile made a difference.
“Let’s try and keep coincidences like that to a minimum,” he said.
“I’ll try,” she said and she nodded at Paolina. “But you’d better go get your date before Alonzo snaps her up.”
Carlo looked over at the two of them. Paolina and Alonzo were standing metres apart, not even looking at each other. He raised an eyebrow at Vittoria.
“Indeed, sparks are flying.”
She grinned. “Send him my way, will you? I’ve got to look for some paintings with actual things on them.”
“This entire floor is full of them.”
“Yeah, but they’re all blurry.” She said it with an eyeroll that suggested it was the most obvious thing and he was absolutely clueless.
“It’s because they’re impressionistic. You’ll want to go up a floor and look at renaissance paintings for something that isn’t blurred as you put it.”
“Thanks for the tip,” she said, then she added a little more unsure. “And… thanks.”
It came back, the slight hint of vulnerability. It made him decide that he would keep his promise. He was going to make sure that she stayed safe. It didn’t matter who she was and it didn’t matter who he was—he wasn’t the man his dad would have wanted, but he could do little things like this. Make sure that one woman didn’t get hurt more than she already had been.
He smiled. “I’ll see you later, Vittoria.”
“Yeah, see you,” she said, disappearing around the corner.
Vittoria lost all interest in looking at paintings in the museum and even talking to Alonzo didn’t have any appeal. Before now, she had made conversation with her sullen guard and enjoyed herself by annoying him, but the fun had been sucked out of it at some point during her conversation with Carlo. He already unnerved her with those eyes of his, eyes that seemed to see past all layers of subterfuge that she had set up, but just now there had been a softness in them that was even more unnerving. She couldn’t stick around this place and risk running into him again.
Instead, she asked Alonzo to walk her back to Carlo’s house. She wanted a chance to rest and, most importantly, she wanted to have a look at the wound that still gnawed at her flesh. She’d been doing more exercise than was probably good for the injury, so as soon as she was sure that Alonzo wouldn’t come knocking, she pulled off her jumper and unwound the bandage from around her chest. With an unpleasant chill, she turned around and inspected it.
The bullet wound in her back was small, located just to the side of her spine and under her heart and it was just about the luckiest she had been in her life. If it had been a few centimetres to the right it would have hit her spine, paralysing her. If it had hit her heart, she would have bled out. Instead, the bullet had missed the most vital organs and lodged itself in a rib, where it kept her from bleeding out.
She had been beyond lucky. Not only had the bullet hit just right to ensure her survival, but Alberto had been nearby and made sure that she survived. He had taken care of her, kept her safe, and she had repaid him by leaving before she was fully recovered. On top of everything, it had opened a little bit during her leaving.
Vittoria rebandaged the wound, put her jumper back on, and sank into bed. She curled up on top of the covers and put her arms around her knees, her thoughts continually circling around Alberto and the guilt she felt about leaving. She couldn’t stop her thoughts from going there and she had an idea of why—because mixed in with thoughts of her best friend was the image of Carlo who looked at her and earnestly said that he would keep her safe.
It reminded her of Alberto so much, it made her heart hurt. He was the only person who had promised something like that and meant it.
Oh, the others had promised things. Gallo promised her everything he could think of to get to her and none of it materialised, but Alberto… he meant it. She didn’t have any illusions that Carlo was genuine, but he was good at pretending. Good enough that she let herself indulge in the feeling, just a little bit. She curled up in the bed and her mind took her back to a different time, to a time when the feeling of safety that enveloped her wasn’t imagined.
Author’s notes: Hi guys! So while I’m still taking a break from regular posting, I thought posting a few of these chapters now and again can’t hurt. This one’s actually been finished for so long, it’s mad, but boyfriend needed time to do beta-reading for me. Now, with his approval, here it is at last! As usual, I’m going to go through some changes from the old version in an expand-y thing, though it has spoilers for anyone who’s reading for the first time. There are only a few, though.Click here for boring change notes!
- This is another of those chapters that just plain didn’t exist in earlier chapters. This is another case where I’m adding in bits to develop the characters and add more plot.
- Carlo’s dad is more of a character now. At the start of the original version, it was important to Carlo that he wasn’t like what his dad wanted him to be, but I pretty much dropped that plotline as the story continued.
- I’m making it more clear that Carlo always had criminal inclinations, even as a kid.
- Of course I’m also trying to develop Vittoria’s character. At times, in the old version, she came across as someone without any emotions whatsoever and it made her a lot harder to write. I’ve given her someone to care about (Alberto), and she’s also engaging more with Carlo. As with the old version, she faked her death but as you now know, it almost wasn’t faked.
That was it for the changes, but there are a few extra things I want to say. First, I realise Vittoria is actually super tiny in these pictures. I forgot I had used height-sliders already and I ended up also using OMSP resizers, making her extra super tiny. x) Normally, she’s a little taller (same height as Gina). Second, I completely modelled Vittoria’s distaste for impressionistic art on boyfriend. He laughed out loud when he read it becuase some of the things she says he are things he said verbatim the time I took him to see Monet and other renaissance artists at a local museum. I just think that’s funny, so now you know.
Anywayyyy, thanks so much if you made it this far. As you know I’m not posting regularly here, but I encourage everyone to follow my tumblr, where I often post little cute sets as well as extras about the story. You want to see Carlo with piercings and tattoos? Because you totally can (and it makes me uncomfortable). With that out of the way, thanks so much for dropping by, thank you for reading and I’ll see you in the next post!