Italian Heart

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Chapter 5

“I see you’re feeling better this morning,” Marjorie said the moment I walked into the venue. The LeFleur looked stunning, as always, with its high vaulted ceilings, classic contemporary style, and floor-to-ceiling windows that illuminated the white walls and gave everything a healthy glow.

“Yes, much,” I said as I made my way to Aubrey. She handed me my tablet and headset before we set off to make sure all the table cards were in the right locations and that everyone’s meals were correctly recorded.

The moment we made it into the main dining area, Tory came rushing over, tears spilling down her cheeks.

“That bitch fired me!” she cried before dropping her tablet on the nearest table and plopping down onto one of the while linen covered chairs, her French-manicured hands covering her teary brown eyes.

“She can’t fire you,” Aubrey said as she rushed over, somehow pulling a tissue from out of thin air. She was always prepared for things like this. “You’ve been working here for a year. On what grounds?”

“She said that Mr. Belvida wasn’t happy with my work and that I shouldn’t look for a reference.”

I sat there for a moment, wondering what the heck could have happened in a day before realizing that this has nothing to do with Uncle Oscar. Marjorie was just trying to wreck havoc before the merger and she was gunning for everyone who could compete with her for her job.

“No, you’re not fired just yet. Give me a second, and I’ll make a call.”

Tory gave me a look as if to say that it wasn’t worth it, but what good was favoritism if I never did anything with it?”

“Hey kiddo, how’s the luncheon looking?” Uncle Oscar’s voice was a bit muffled, but I presumed he was just driving and needed to use the hands free thing in his car.

“Great, as always. I need a favor.”

“Anything, kiddo.”

That’s what I was hoping he’d say.

“Meghan’s assistant, Tory, was just told to leave without a recommendation. Something about you not being happy with her performance at work, which we both know is crap.”

He paused, a heavy sigh echoing through the phone. “What can I do?”

“I don’t know? Can you stop her? She’s gunning for people for no reason.”

“I’m pulling up now. I’ll take care of it.” With that, he hung up, but Tory’s face looked awestruck.

“You didn’t have to do that,” she said as she stood, pulling me so quickly into her chest I didn’t know what was going on until she let go.

“I can’t guarantee anything, but I know he’ll try. He’s busy but I know help.”

“Ah, there you are Sophie,” Uncle Oscar called from the doorway. He air kissed my cheek before turning to Tory, who was trying to pull herself together. “I believe there’s been some sort of mixup, as I’m not aware of any performance issues with your events. Quite the opposite, actually. Your event at the Trevelle Estate was one of the best I’ve attended.” He looked to Marjorie, her face positively giddy at the opportunity to talk down to us in front of the CEO as she rushed over. A part of me was happy to have the upper hand. A really big part. Ok, fine. It was all of me. I was just happy.

“Mr. Belvida!” Marjorie leaned in to greet him, but he waved her off.

“Marjorie. Good to see you. Pencil in time this afternoon after everything is cleaned up. We need to handle a few lose ends before I leave.”

Marjorie’s lips pressed into a hard line as she looked between the three of us before excusing herself to deal with a catering emergency.

“Last I checked, you weren’t interested in cashing in any more favors,” he said, peering down at me as Tory and Aubrey hustled away, tablets at the ready. “I would have given you a paid position if I thought you would eventually take it, kiddo.”

“Who says I would?”

He gave me the same look he always did when I was being unnecessarily stubborn.

“I know. I know. I was trying to do it myself, but looks like I needed your help after all,” I said before gesturing toward my growing list of things to do before guests started arriving.

“I have to jump on a call, but I saved a seat for you at the head table. It’d be nice to have a smiling face there for once.”

“You were serious? I thought you'd been joking last week. Marjorie is gonna kill me if I change the list again."

"It'll be fine."

"Murdered. Dead. You may never see me alive after tonight."

“Just put in your order with Marjorie. Now, get back to work before I give you a promotion.”

“Aye aye, captain,” I said before running through the list for each table.

“You’re so lucky to have him as an uncle,” Aubrey said, frowning down at a set of forks that weren’t lining up right. The mark of a true perfectionist. "My uncle owns a hardware store in Alaska, and I refuse to work anywhere where the temperature drops below 60 so I'm doing this the old fashion way."

“He is pretty great. But still not my uncle. More like my uncle in spirit.”

Her eyebrows shot up as if to say that was the understatement of the year before smiling. “There. You know honestly, if this paid better, I’d love my job.”

“You mean if we got paid.”

"Truth."

We made quick work of checking off out respective lists. Her side of the room only had a few adjustments. Name cards to move. Allergies to confirm with the caterers. Nothing crazy. We made quick work of it, meeting in the middle to check that we had the comprehensive list of who couldn’t touch gluten, shellfish, peanuts, dairy, and there was also Mrs. Cartright, who had a violent reaction to the smell of onions. I put her on there for good measure.

“So you’re really leaving Friday?” Aubrey asked, scrolling through her emails.

I nodded, tucking my tablet under my arm as we walked.

“I thought Marjorie was kidding.”

“I need a paid job, and Marjorie is making me stir crazy. It’s definitely time.”

“I know the feeling, but it’s pretty cool of you not to accept handouts. You could have even tried for Marjorie's job if you wanted. You practically are already.”

“In a way, it feels like I did get one.” I shrugged, not sure why we were suddenly having a heart to heart at work. But here we were.

Aubrey smiled. “Mr. Belvida may have gotten you in the door, but you do twice what the rest of us do. Don’t doubt your worth.”

I didn’t know what to say. It meant a lot. More than a lot. And yet there was still a part of me that felt like an imposter.

“I get it. We’re our own biggest critics.” Aubrey’s tablet pinged. She’d been summoned. “Great. Farah left half the goodie bags at the office, and she took off for an early weekend.”

“Early weekend? It's Wednesday.”

"Right. I'll be back." Aubrey shook her head and gave her usual dramatic huff before hustling toward the door.

“I see everything’s in ship shape, kiddo,” Uncle Oscar said pulling me into a side hug. Unlike my real family, he was a hugger. He motioned for me to take off the earpiece just in time to say hello to the Walters as they arrived.

“You look lovely, Nora,” Uncle Oscar said before nodding to her husband in appreciation. "Bernard. Good to see you both again so soon."

“Oh, you’re too kind,” she replied, honest-to-god blushing and everything.

“May I introduce my god daughter, Sophia. Sophia, you know the Walters. They're one of our best clients.”

"You mean most generous," Bernard said, clapping him on the shoulder. "We really do need to talk about this retirement plan of yours. Have you considered investing in..."

Uncle Oscar waved to an usher to come over, apologizing to Bernard but excusing himself nonetheless. I dutifully followed before Nora Walters remembered she'd met me Saturday under far different circumstances. And there was still the lingering urge to tell her that the botox wasn't working, but I was trying out this thing were I let bygones be things I just stew about until I could eat my feelings. It wasn't much, but it was progress.

“Ah, Ari. There you are, my boy. I trust you and Sophia have made amends,” Uncle Oscar said, drawing my attention back to the receiving line.

Dressed in his signature black suit, crisp white shirt, and simple black tie, he looked absolutely drool worthy, and I had to forcibly remind myself that drinks later was strictly casual and not a date. A casual but professional meeting that could involve food. That is all.

“She was kind enough to forgive me." He smiled, and I swore I heard someone gasp behind me. I didn't blame them. Ari really was something else.

“What can I say? He found my weakness."

Uncle Oscar’s eyebrow jumped in accusation.

“Food.”

For some reason, they thought this was hilarious. It wasn't that funny, and it immediately made me suspicious. Uncle Oscar was up to something, and I had a bad feeling it involved him playing Cupid, which was not going to end well for me. I was already dangerously low on the cool scale after taking a drink to the chest and having Ari come to my rescue as I got chewed out by my boss. I don't know if I could take another hit.

“She’s a keeper.”

And there it was. Uncle Oscar was not subtle. Not at all.

There was no recovery for this. Instead, I did what any other sensible person would. I excused myself and walked right out the front door. There was only one person who could talk be back into that room.

“Is it pickaxe time?”

“No, not yet. We have a problem,” I said as I started to pace. I probably looked psychotic, but I needed to get rid of all this nervous energy. “I agreed to drinks with Ari after the luncheon, but Uncle Oscar is trying to help, and it’s so embarrassing. I look desperate. And not in a cute way. If that's possible. I don't know. I just feel like a mess, and he can obviously see I'm a mess."

“So when you say trying to help, is he like ‘hey, kiddo’s single and ready to mingle’ or are we in ‘how many kids are you guys thinking of?’ territory. I mean both aren’t that bad. Maybe he's into that. Some guys are. We shouldn't assume.”

“I highly doubt that's his thing. Highly.” I stifled a laugh.

"Stop trying to sabotage a good thing. You have a date. Don't panic till it's time to panic."

“Yeah, I guess. It’s just that...” I paused for a second, watching as Naomi Tait walked into the front doors of the LeFleur, her publicist on her heels. “I’ve gotta go. The ice queen has arrived.”

“You’re so much hotter than her. Don’t worry about it, babe.”

“Yeah, yeah. I’ll fill you in on the details later.”

“You better! I live vicariously through you until my boy shows up. Then you're on your own."

I hung up the moment I walked back inside. For a second, it felt nice to be important. I wasn't Sophia the event planner anymore. I was here as a guest. A special guest at the head table.

“Ah, there you are, Sophia,” Uncle Oscar said before standing and greeting me with a quick kiss to the cheek. He quickly introduced everyone at the table before offering the seat to his right. Thankfully, Ari was across the round table beside Nora and Bernard, but that didn’t mean the looks he was giving me made me feel comfortable. He made me feel like my dress was on fire and I quickly checked to make sure I hadn't accidentally brushed by a candle on my way inside. Phew. The flames were only internal.

“So have I missed any of the speeches?” I whispered before unfolding my napkin and adjusting my forks out of habit.

“The stuffy old CEO said something to open the floor, but that’s about it,” he said with a hearty laugh before the first course was delivered.

“Must have been boring."

"The worst," he nudged my shoulder before starting into a story about his last trip to Rome. The one where he almost fell into the Trevi Fountain. Again.

After dessert was served and thoroughly enjoyed, I felt the mood at the table shift. Uncle Oscar excused himself, making his way to the stage. He was so different from me. He had no fear of speaking in front of the crowd. He was completely at ease as he motioned for the audience to stop clapping at his return.

“Thank you, my friends. Thank you all. It’s an honor to speak on behalf of Reading Restoration and ARK Incorporated this afternoon. For those who were in attendance Saturday, I again thank you for your generosity, but today, I would like to thank you all for another reason. It's a day I thought would never come. Retirement is going to be, as many have told me, the real adventure. I am grateful for you all and for the friends I've made these past twenty-five years. Friends with whom I hope will still keep in contact once I'm no longer buying their dinners at Le Marc,” he said, causing a roar of laughter from a table nearby.

“As you may know, I’m being shipped off to greener pastures, but before I take my leave, I’d like to make a toast to my nephew, who will be superseding me as CEO. To Ari. May you discover half the happiness I have in the time that I’ve worked with ARK Incorporated.”

“To Ari,” the crowd said in unison, but I was too shocked to move. My vision dimmed, but I blinked through it, trying to process the fact that Ari wasn’t just some random client of Uncle Oscar's. He was the jerk taking his job! Ok, fine. It's not his fault. But it felt like his fault.

I looked up at Ari, watching his drink in my reaction before nodding to Uncle Oscar, who was waving for him to come say something. For a second, nothing moved. We were playing a very strange game of emotional chicken and eventually, he flinched. Ari set his napkin on the table, making his way through a line of handshakes as he headed toward the stage.

“Ok, girl, I know I said I wanted details, but you didn’t have to rush them,” Katie said the moment I locked myself in the nearest bathroom stall. I didn't want to see Ari give a speech, so I'd left before his shoes even hit the stage.

“So why is it that in all the times we Googled Ari, not once did it tell us he's taking over ARK. Shouldn't that be the first freaking thing to pop up? I mean, come on,” I said, trying not to let the frustration get to me. I didn’t know why this bothered me so much, but it did.

“No shit. Really?” Katie said, her tact lacking. “Well, that’s not what I expected.”

“Yeah, me either. I mean how can he be so young and a CEO? That makes zero sense. This is real life. People don't take over companies like that under thirty.”

“I mean he did study at Cambridge and got his MBA at...Harvard. Top of his class and everything. Damn, he's a smartie." I could hear her furious typing in between gasps. "Smart. Athletic. Babe, he does Ironmans...for charity."

"Of course it's for charity." I muttered."But can we focus. Merger. Ark. Hostile takeover that's not really hostile but feels hostile to me."

"Right. Sorry. He seemed to drop off the radar for a bit. How old did you say he was?” Katie asked, the clicks stopping.

"Uh, thirty?"

“Google says 28."

I shrugged as if she could actually see my reaction before going back to my pity party.

“Is it bad that I hate he's rich?"

"Kinda. Yeah," Katie said just as the bathroom door opened.

I quickly hung up, sent Katie a text explaining, and flushed the toilet. I was hoping that the woman would be walking into the stall just as I exited, but of course, it was Naomi. She made a show of pausing in front of the mirror with the best lighting, her fingers gripping a tube of pale pink lipstick that she was about to reapply.

“I know you, don’t I?” she asked, her voice not at all bitchy or rude. I was almost taken aback at the sheer normalcy of the situation before remembering that everyone out there was acting for one reason or another.

“We've met before,” I said, aiming for casual. I made a show of washing my hands. Twenty seconds. That was normal, right? I even took my time with the warmed hand towels, which would have been nice if I weren't over thinking whether I was drying my hands wrong. Would have been nice was starting to be the theme of my day. Or maybe my life.

“So you and Ari, huh?” she said, just touching the makeup to her lips.

I didn't have a response that didn't involve me blubbering some senseless response about not actually knowing who he was or what he wanted. Instead, I smile and headed for the door.

“I see.” Her words gave me pause. I knew she knew she had me, but damn it, I wanted to hear what she had to say. "Well I hope you know what you're getting into. He's all work and no play. Makes you wonder whether he wants a partner or just..." Her eyes lingered over my dress before she turned away, obviously determining I'm not competition. "A secretary."

I really shouldn't have paused.

I walked out the bathroom door and back to the table. Part of me wanted to leave. I was suddenly uncomfortable. My dress felt too tight. My face was burning hot and definitely red. I was barely able to keep my mind away from what Naomi was really trying to say.

And then I saw it. The elephant in the room. The glaringly empty seat beside Mrs. Walters.

Ari was gone.

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