T H I R T Y - S E V E N
One month later.
Despite my best intentions to drive my life towards a constructive path, I was failing miserably. I have a family now, a new job, a couple of new friends I have managed to make despite my awkward social skills, but a constant emptiness chased me around like an old spirit in a haunted house.
I channeled my inner millennial woman and tried everything in the books that people do after a breakup.
A new haircut, check. I dared the bangs, layered the length, and mostly let it down. Adventure trip, check. Marco taught me rock climbing when we made a three-day trip to the mountains. I don’t think I have ever been so tired before in my entire life.
A new hobby, check. After ten unsuccessful attempts at red velvet cake, I finally got the eleventh one right, even though the icing was a disaster.
Rebound—well, I tried. Does sharing three drinks with a stranger and talking about life count as a half-date situation? I wouldn’t know. After three drinks, I was forlornly missing Dominic, and this stranger’s cuteness seemed too dull against my mafia man’s rugged charm and brazen seduction.
In a nutshell, nothing worked.
I tried to convince myself that because Dominic and I weren’t lovers, none of these post-breakup therapies would work.
“How did you get over the loss?” I asked Ralph over dinner one night because, to me, my parents had the greatest love story and tragedy at the same time.
Ralph laughed, shaking his head as if the idea was unfathomable. “I never got over the loss of your mother. I miss her like I used to do it twenty-three years ago.”
“Doesn’t it hurt?”
“Yes,” he affirmed. “It hurts. But you cannot make it all go away, not at least when you have the memories. And I would never let go of Sophia’s memories.”
“How can someone cope with all that?”
Ralph smiled. “You just have to find a way to love her after she is gone and love yourself too. That’s the only way you can heal.”
I took a deep breath and dipped my head down to focus on the plate as silence settled over the dining space. Since my mother was the nucleus of many conversations I had with my father over the time, I knew that he wouldn’t question my curiosity over heartbreak and pain.
It was when we had finished dinner, and he helped me with the plates that Ralph pressed a soft kiss on my temple to bid goodnight. ”Principessa,” he said in the faintest of whispers, cupping my chin gently. “I don’t know if you would tell me later, or if you won’t tell me at all—I want you to know this that I’ll always be there for you.”
I stared at him with wide eyes and a clogged throat with unshed tears.
“Buona notte, sogni d’oro, d’amore e di felicità.” Good night, sweet dreams, love, and happiness.
“Hey,” Noah called, storming into the kitchen where I worked. “Boss lady wants you out for table seven.”
I narrowed my eyes at his boyish grin and smacked his shoulder with the spatula in my hand. “Firstly, that’s your section. And secondly, today, I have kitchen duties, Noah,” I said, arranging the dishes.
“Don’t tell me.” He raised his palms in surrender. “Go to Devil’s mama and tell her.”
The restaurant manager, where I was waitressing, was the reincarnation of Satan. But ironically, this place was heaven. With its overview of a beautiful lake in a city that was screaming with modern skyline and contemporary settings, The Food Story, was truly a sight to behold.
I had the company of Noah, who, with his unhealthy obsession for French fries and quirky personality, has made me smile on the days I would rather hide from the world.
Then there was Anna. With her freckled skin, rosy cheeks, and blond hair, I wondered if the character of Frozen was inspired by her. If it was, it could not be more perfect. She has a selfless heart, a fearless mind, and a sparkling personality.
“Ugh!” I closed my palms over the face, shaking my head. “God, Noah, I am slammed.” Peeking out a little, I asked him, “Do you think anyone would actually notice if we lock Kathy in the walk-in refrigerator?”
“She’s Satan,” Noah reminded, pulling me up by the shoulders and ushering me towards the door. “I am sure she’ll find a way out of a refrigerator. Now, go!”
Reluctantly, I dragged myself through the door only to find out that the restaurant was empty, except for one particular seating from where one could actually see the entire view of the lake.
I was slightly baffled because it was one of those hours when the place would be crowded.
As I sauntered closer, I saw Kathy aka Satan putting on her fake, pinched smile. She was trying too hard to impress a woman who sat there with her back towards me.
A few feet away, it took me less than a second to recognize this woman who was brave enough to fall in love and marry a man like Viktor Romano.
“What took you so long?” Kathy chastised me in a hushed tone and a quick glare as Mia flickered a casual glance.
Pushing aside the menu, she looked at Kathy. “I will have the Côte de Boeuf, thank you.”
“Would you like to try one of our specials? I will have the chef especially—”
Mia cut her right off. “I said thank you,” she clipped out with a smile, which was more of a sweet and polite warning to scamper off.
“Sure, Mrs. Romano.”
Satan was simply about to dump it on me when she added, “I would also like to have a word with Lilliana; so I would appreciate it if we are given some privacy here.”
Taken aback, Kathy looked between us with a shocked expression. Even if it was below her position to serve the food, I knew that she wasn’t stupid enough to refuse Mia Romano.
Not that Mia was intimidating, but the weight of her surname in Chicago was equivalent to royalty.
“Uh...right. Um... sure, Mrs. Romano, whatever you want,” Satan stammered and quickly skittered away, but not before sending a glacial stare my way.
“Your employer is a bully,” Mia commented nonchalantly, dabbing her lipstick with a tissue and then invited me to join her.
I wondered if her judgment of character was that accurate, how in the name of God, she was married to Viktor? I, for one, understood the aura of charming and dangerous men, but Viktor Romano seemed colder than a glacier.
“Mrs. Romano,” I acknowledged as I gingerly took the seat. “What brings you here?”
She completely ignored my question, moving on with hers. “How are you doing, Lilliana?”
“I am fine. Thank you.”
She smiled. “Nice. Now that we are done with the formalities, I’d like to tell you something important. Dominic’s spiraling, if you must know.”
The mention of that one name overrode my sense of calmness. It’s like going from zero to one hundred in the blink of an eye.
But she went on. “He eats on time, drinks more water than alcohol, and he’s home every night — in his bedroom and alone. Are you getting my point?” she asked expectedly.
Everything seemed like a blur. “No.” I shook my head, straightening my spine. “Aren’t those things normal?”
“Yes, but for normal people. Do you think Dominic’s normal?”
I sighed heavily, getting the hang of the conversation. “Yeah, I see your point. But I am sorry, I can’t help you. I am the last person you should see if you want to fix him.”
I wondered how the knowledge of his misery could balm my aching heart.
"You are the only person who can fix Dominic,” she said firmly. ”Only you, Lilliana.”
The sudden flash of the former painful memories with Dominic sliced me into half. “The last time I tried, it backfired,” I told her simply. “My apologies would never be enough for him to accept that I did not truly mean any harm to him.”
“Has it ever occurred to you that he doesn’t want your apology?” Mia countered.
“What else can I do to make it up to him? I can’t go back in time and fix the mistakes.”
“You can love him,” she suggested like it was a theory. It was love, in fact, that led us here. “I am sure Dominic doesn’t even know that he is capable of falling for someone, but the truth is, he is in love with you. And he is so stubborn that he would rather live in denial than accept the truth.”
I closed my eyes as I bit into my lower lip. “He doesn’t love me, at least not after the whole fiasco,” I said in a gut-wrenching low voice. “You don’t threaten to force yourself on someone, or you don’t humiliate the one you love. And if it is love at all, I don’t need that kind of toxicity in my life. Thanks to Dante, I already have enough to flush out.”
Mia’s eyes widened in surprise as if she couldn’t believe what she was hearing. “Did Dominic...did he really?”
The intricate knots of my relationship with Dominic, however loose or tight, were mine to untangle. I was not going to justify his rights and wrongs to anyone, no matter how close or kind-hearted the person was.
“Listen, I don’t mean any disrespect,” I told her courtly. “And I appreciate you coming here because I know your time is valuable, but I have to get back to work, Mrs. Romano.”
“I understand,” she said with a soft resignation in her voice. She took out a small card and slid under my palm with a smile. “I know you won’t ever have the dire need to reach out to me for anything, but if you wish to talk to anyone, I will be all ears.”
“How do you know her?” Anna bombarded me with questions the moment we left the restaurant and decided to catch a movie together.
Mia Romano wasn’t a household name but famed enough to turn the heads. More so because no one actually knew her before she married Viktor.
“And she knows her too!” Noah added into the mix.
“Ugh, it’s nothing.” I shrugged casually. “I once interviewed her for a journalism project, and that’s how I came across her.”
Anna pulled her blond tresses into a ponytail as she spoke, “I heard that her marriage was a contract and that she would own a huge share in their business.”
“I...don’t know think so,” I put forward mildly. The real story of Mia would never surface and from what I knew, Viktor has made sure of it.
Chicago and entire America knew her as a businesswoman and the face of Romano chain of hotels, real estate, clubs, and whatnot. And Mia transformed herself so vibrantly that no one could ever unravel the mysteries of her ruinous past.
“But that’s not the point!” Anna said impatiently. “They vacated the entire restaurant so Mia Romano could meet you. Are you secretly a celebrity?” She narrowed her eyes dramatically.
I chuckled. “Yeah, and that’s why I work as a waitress.”
“Oh, c’mon. There’s a TV show, I heard, where rich people do poor people’s jobs.”
Did I forget to mention that Anna was dramatic, too?
“Hey,” Noah butted in, putting each of his arms around our shoulders. “Listen, if there are hidden paparazzi around, you guys gotta tell me fast. I need to fix my hair.”
“Sure, Zac Efron.” I rolled my eyes and slapped his hand.
“Zac Efron is a little overrated if you’d ask me.” Anna snickered, for her infatuation tilted more towards men like Jason Statham, with rippling physique and grating voice.
After ten minutes of walking down and a long conversation over the manliness of various categories of men, ranging from Hollywood to sports, we finally arrived at the movie theatre as I offered to pay for the giant bucket of popcorn and drinks.
“Oh, my God!” Anna exclaimed, and almost giving me a heart attack.
“I knew you were secretly a celebrity.” This time, her eyes twinkled like a little girl. She pointed at my hand. “That’s a Prada wallet, woman!”
It was one of the many gifts with which Ralph has presented me over the month. Luxurious materialistic things were not exactly his style, but he simply didn’t let me feel the lack of anything.
“It’s a copy,” I fibbed. “You know the ones you can buy on eBay for one-tenth of the original price?”
“Are you both done?” Noah cut in. “C’mon, we are getting late.”
I was glad it was a superhero movie because watching the zombies destroy the world was much better than unrealistic happily-ever-after.
Once the movie ended, we walked out of the theatre together and decided to order a cab. Anna and Noah kept arguing over the different interpretations of the climax as we waited while I fished out my phone.
I didn’t realize that it was on mute as the forty-nine missed calls from Marco flashed on my screen.
“Uh, guys, I need to take this—”
The next couple of seconds were faster than the speed of light but were too significant to forget.
A screeching noise of a car echoed from behind, making me spun around. There were hysterical screams and commotion all around, and before I could even blink, three gunshots reverberated in the air.
At first, I didn’t feel a thing except for the tightness around my neck and torso. But the burning sensation bloomed, and I simply could not stand straighter anymore.
This couldn’t be happening, I thought. Not now and not when I was building my life from scratch.
My own heartbeats began to gong louder in my ears; every beat distant than the other as I chased the sound to keep myself alive.
One beat. Two beats, and then the next.
But darkness came for me eventually.
And I fell straight into the abyss of hell.