Italian Heart

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Chapter 6

The sound of kissing and noises completely unrelated to my movie snapped me out of my reverie as I listed to the telltale slam of the front door.

“Hi, Josh,” I shouted, causing a loud thump to sound out across the apartment followed by a few curses and Katie’s shrill laughter.

“Hey, Soph,” he called as I stood behind my bedroom door.

“Is everyone decent out there?” I asked playfully, not bothering to actually wait.

“You, missy, were supposed to be out!” Katie said as she re-buttoned the top of her blouse and smiled over at me. At least they were taking this well.

“I can step out for a bit if you want.”

“No, that’s ok,” Josh said, pulling his shirt back on.

“I need to run to the store anyway. I’ve got a hot date with two men tonight, and they promised me cookie-dough ice cream. Have fun,” I said as I slipped on my flip-flops and headed toward the market down the street. Unfortunately, it wasn’t until I saw my reflection in the market window that I remembered that I was still wearing my Mickey Mouse pjs and a crop top that should not see the light of day, or night as it were, but there was no reason to turn back now.

“Hey Frank,” I called as I entered, wandering around the aisles until my arms were filled with chips, cookies, and whatever food I wanted because...well, I had no real excuse to feel like utter crap, but I did. So that was my reason.

“You throwing a party or something?” he asked a few minutes later when I plopped it all on the main counter.

“Yeah, a total rager,” I joked as I placed it all in my reusable bag and handed over my credit card.

“Take care of yourself, scout. Life gets easier eventually,” Frank said, coughing a little before returning to his newspaper.

I nodded in agreement before stepping outside and heading back toward the apartment. Let’s be honest. I didn’t need to be out all night. She had a bedroom of her own, and I had three more seasons of Vampire Diaries calling my name. Don't judge my choice of shows to binge. I'd had a day.

“Sophie?” Well, come to think of it, something else was calling my name too, and he sounded upset.

“Yes?” I asked as I turned around to see Ari striding over, his suit replaced with khakis and one of those glorious sweaters that clung to a man’s chest in all the right ways. Maybe he moonlighted as a sweater model. He sure did have that brooding stare down pat.

“What are you doing out so late?” he asked, his eyes searching over my anti-attractive choice of pjs and bags filled with junk food.

“Getting food?” Somehow it ended up like a question, but I just gave him a nod as if to say my comment stood before walking the final steps to my front door and buzzing inside. For some reason, he felt the need to follow me because the next thing I knew, my bag somehow ended up in his hand, and he was silently standing beside me.

“You know I can carry a few bags of chips,” I said, my nerves turning to nervous laugher. “It’s not like I need an escort.”

“We need to talk.”

His words were so terse I considered the possibility that he was angry about something, but he was the one who left and didn’t text. I mean, going to the bathroom wasn’t a crime the last time I checked.

“I’ll warn you now, my roommate’s boyfriend just surprised her. We might have to go somewhere else to talk,” I said, trying to keep it casual.

“You don’t have a room of your own?” he asked, sounding appalled at the suggestion.

“You're not coming into my room,” I said, standing my ground. If he wanted to talk, we would be doing it my way. The moment the elevator arrived, I pounded a few times on my front door before turning the key and checking to see that the coast was clear.

“If you’ll give me that, I’ll put everything away.” I reached for the bag, but the contents were already being dumped out onto the table to be organized.

“Hungry?” Ari asked, a smirk forming across his face.

“No, I just like the pretty colors. Yes, I’m hungry. I got stuck in traffic driving Karen and Aubrey to the beach, missed dinner, and then found out Josh was visiting today and not Saturday, so all hopes of take-out went out the door.”

“Let me take you to dinner. You won’t feel well if you eat cheese curls until you pass out.”

I rolled my eyes and grabbed the bag protectively. “That’s what you think. I'm more than willing to test this theory.”

His eyebrow quirked up as if to say he were intrigued before I walked into my bedroom to find something decent to wear. I settled for a pair of black skinny jeans, an emerald green sleeveless blouse with a white accent down the spine, and some black ankle boots with a chunky wedged heel. Casual. I'd wear this anywhere. I was not looking cute for him.

“Ok, I’m...ready.”

To my horror, Katie, Ari, and Josh were all sitting around the kitchen island, laughing about God knows what and sipping glasses of wine. Well, Katie and Josh were. Ari’s looked untouched.

Ari gave me an appreciative glance before standing and excusing himself from the group.

“Try not to have too much fun, you guys,” I said to Katie and Josh I grabbed my purse and headed for the door. “And yes, I’ll be back sometime tonight, so don’t get any ideas.” I winked at Katie as I headed out the door and toward the elevator.

“They seem nice,” Ari said, looking a little smug. I hated when he did that. I was supposed to have the upper hand here, but who were we kidding? I definitely didn't.

“Ok, so you wanted to talk. Let's talk dinner. I need food,” I said as I checked my phone. 9:45. “I don’t know many places that are open this late on a Wednesday.”

“I know this great 24-hour place that serves amazing Italian food.”

“A 24-hour Italian restaurant? Really?”

He just smiled. “I know that owner.”

“Do they have pasta?”

“I did say Italian didn't I?” he replied, smiling as he led me to a shiny black car with a trident on the front.

“He would own a Maserati,” I mumbled as I climbed into the buttery soft passenger seat. The all black interior was trimmed in red and was far too intimidating for my taste.

“And what's that supposed to mean?"

“What's what supposed to mean." I smiled, trying to play off that he heard me.

“You have something against nice cars?” he asked as the lights flickered on, illuminating his jaw that was probably chiseled in heaven by Michelangelo himself.

“Maybe I do. Maybe I don’t.”

Ari smiled, pulling onto the street and flying through the city.

I should have known something was up the moment we left the bright lights of my street, but I was so lost in the moment that I didn’t realize I should have been trying to orient myself if I needed to find my way back on my own. It all just looked too perfect, like one of those glittering montages of places and spaces whipping by so that all you saw was a brief three-second snapshot before the next building came into view.

“Here we are,” Ari said as he pulled off the main road and toward a breathtaking home decorated like a white Tuscan villa. It was two stories with long, rectangular windows on the ground floor and smaller balconied ones on the second.

“This isn’t a restaurant, it is?” I asked half heartedly, verbally confirming my gullibility as he pulled his car right up to the entrance.

“I never said restaurant,” he replied as he opened my door and extended his hand. I accepted the offer hesitantly, relishing in the warmth of his palm on mine as he held my hand for a few seconds longer than necessary.

“Yeah yeah, but you didn’t deny it either. I should have known you were up to something.”

Internally, I was torn. I never did anything fun or exciting. After Kyle, I focused on my future and after a few months of grieving, I was physically ready to move on, but mentally, something held me back. I wasn’t sure what I wanted.

Sometimes I thought I wanted what was easy and comfortable. Stuff I knew. Like knowing each other's take out order and always reaching for each other's hands when you're out in public. Small things. Things you could rely on.

But then there was that side of me that wanted to be the girl who’d drop everything and move to another country. To be the one the guy asks on that spontaneous road trip across the country. Or even just to be the girl who has dinner with a guy knowing she wasn’t going to marry him.

Sometimes, I didn’t know which was the real me and which one I pretended was real.

“Oh, come on, I won’t bite. Oscar would burn me on the roof of ARK if I even thought about mistreating you,” Ari said with a smile. “If it makes you feel better, we can eat outside. I’ll set us up by the pool.”

It was in that moment I decided that tonight would be different. I wouldn’t have regrets. I would eat dinner, do what I wanted, and then go back to my life tomorrow knowing that I was living life instead of fearing it. And there was Uber. If I needed to leave, I wasn't trapped. It was fine. I was fine.

“Ok, but just so you know, I meant what I said about not staying over. I have to be at work tomorrow right on time. Not five minutes late. On time. I can’t let anything mess that up,” I said, my tone implying that anything really was a placeholder for anyone.

“Agreed, but if it helps, I could get your job back in t-minus 48 hours.”

“Tempting, but I like to pretend that I still have some small amount of professionalism left."

He laughed. "Whatever you say."

I had to admit. I kinda like the way he said that as I followed him inside. I could handle this. I could totally handle this.

But then, the worst happened. A puppy the size of my shoe came bounding around the corner, its little paws skidding on the hardwood floor until it reached our feet.

Never mind. I was back to not handling this. Puppies were a game changer.

“Who’s this?” I asked as I scooped the tiny thing up. It licked at my face furiously before looking between me and its owner as if it didn’t know which way it wanted to go.

“Her name is Daisy. She was a gift from my neighbors.” He nodded presumably in their direction. “They had a litter a few months ago, and this little one wandered onto my property. When I brought her back, they said to keep her,” Ari said with a shrug before nuzzling the puppy with the side of his index finger. “Kitchen’s this way.”

Yeah, I don't know why I thought I could handle this. The beautiful Italian designs, the elaborate decorations and trinkets, the freaking puppy. And then there was Ari. Whatever composure I'd willed to existence on the drive over was gone. All hell broke loose when he looked back over his shoulder because that smile he sent my way, that was the smile of a man who would forever and always get what he wanted. And something in me said that my self-declared restraint wasn’t any match for him if he ever made a move.

Daisy squirmed in my arms so I set her down, enjoying the way the little brown dog scampered off in search of her owner before sitting dutifully by his feet.

“So do you take her for walks every day?” I asked as I walked into the kitchen. I tried to keep my cool about all of this, but his kitchen was a dream. With stainless steel appliances, granite counters, marble floors and that hanging pot and pan rack I always saw in movies, it was probably one of the nicest kitchens I had ever seen, let alone been in. From what little I knew about appliances, all his stuff seemed state of the art, but my familiarity of cooking came from one season of Top Chef and the occasional Chopped binge when Katie was in a foodie phase.

“She’s so tiny, one lap around the yard is all she can handle.” Ari grinned before firing up the stove, pouring some olive oil in a cast iron skillet before starting a pot for the pasta. Without hesitation, he turned to his fridge, pulled out a small slab of pancetta, four large eggs, some sort of block cheese, and a handful of fresh parsley. As the pan sizzled, he began mincing a few the herbs like it was nothing and then set to cubing the pancetta so quickly I could have sworn he was a chef. Seriously, who was this guy?

“So do you bring all your dates out here to impress them or am I just lucky?” I asked as I watched him add the dry spaghetti to the pot and starting the pancetta in the skillet. The meat sizzled, filling the air with the delicious salty scent of fresh Italian cooking.

“You might just be lucky,” he said with a smile that could suggest either reason. He wiped his knife off on a cloth before placing the chopped herbs into a bowl and dumping the dirty dishes into the sink.

“Anyone who says no to a guy cooking them dinner is a fool,” I said with an appreciative smile. I stood, nearly tripping over Daisy, before wandering into the cooking domain. “So if I were plates, where would I be?”

For a second, my proximity seemed to startle him, but he just nodded toward the cabinet to the left before rinsing off another knife and placing it in the dishwasher.

After grabbing two plates, searching a few drawers for some silverware, and snatching a few napkins, I set the kitchen table and returned for glasses.

“Do you like wine?” he asked as he pulled out a bottle of white.

“Honestly, I’ve never had any that I liked, so no. This may come as a surprise, but college didn’t make me the wine connoisseur I had hoped it would.”

“Would you like to try this? It’s a bit dry, but I've always enjoyed it with carbonara.”

I grappled for an answer, debating my new carefree self. I knew there was a strong chance that I’d hate it, but what if I liked it? What if this was a game changer in my life, and I was too afraid that past experiences would ruin something good? Ok, fine. Maybe my great revelation wasn’t about wine, but it felt like it had a dual meaning.

“Maybe a little. I don’t want to waste it."

“You may try as little or as much as you’d like. It’s a Sauvignon Blanc from my friend’s vineyard. If you like it, you can have as much as you’d like,” Ari said as he clicked off the burners and plated the dish by the table.

“Oh my god, marry me. That smells like heaven. I always wanted to find someone who could actually cook.” It looked like one of those real Italian dinners I expected to have when I eventually made it back to Italy to see my nonna. If I ever did. It was starting to feel like a fantasy to go back.

“Shouldn’t I be the one proposing?” he asked as he pushed in my chair.

“Nah, I like doing things my way. Don't worry. You'll catch on.” I smiled as I tried not to bring the plate to my face and eat like a dog. No offense, Daisy.

Ari's cooking tasted like what nirvana must feel like because I felt like chanting and praying and praising some Italian food god over what I was consuming.

“I take it you’re a fan of Italian food.”

I stopped mid-shovel of food, completely unaware that I possessed table manners. I tried to recover, but I ended up just making a mess, including getting sauce all over my shirt.

“Please don’t laugh. I’m so hungry right now, and this is exactly what I wanted. I mean yeah Katie makes spaghetti for me sometimes, but this is perfect,” I said as I gestured to everything around me. “Have you ever had that feeling? Like you finally get what you want, and you don’t want it to end? That's what this pasta is right now.”

Ari just smiled and took a sip of his wine before nodding.

“Yes, I think I know exactly what that feels like.”

We stared at each other for a moment, me with my pasta covered fork dangling in mid air while he just watched me like I was the most beautiful creature in the world. A furious blush swept across my cheeks as I tried to decide whether it was best to keep eating or cut my losses and pretend that I could be a lady.

Eh, who was I kidding? I was hungry.

“About earlier...”

I held up my hand as if to stop him, but of course I was chewing another bite, but he patiently waited.

“I didn’t leave the building. I just needed to collect my thoughts. By the time I came back, you were long gone, and then I didn’t know if I should call you and I didn't really know what to do. Plus you didn’t text, so I left when work was over. I’m so sorry if you were mad,” I said as I looked at him, watching his green eyes react to the dimmed lights. They were practically incandescent.

“I didn’t know,” he said as he set down his fork. “After my speech, I tried to find you, hoping that if I could explain why I didn’t want to tell you about the merger right away..." He sighed. "We barely knew each other but it should have come up. I should have told you Saturday, but I wanted to see if things would be different."

“Different?"

“It was obvious you didn't know who I was. I'm not used to that."

“Well, now I know who you are. Does that mean this is just dinner?"

“Go out with me. On a proper date with actual plans that don’t involve work or bars or anything less than a date should be. I want to do this right.”

I looked at my pasta for a moment, wondering if I had been drugged. There they were. All ten fingers and a handsome date sitting across from me asking for a date. Not a hookup. Not a situationship. A date. Which could lead to a relationship. Which was...a lot.

“Could you excuse me for a second? I should probably text Katie letting her know I’m still alive.” I stood up from the table for a second, realizing that I the food had definitely gone to my head.

“Of course,” Ari said as he stood, reaching for both plates and carrying them to the kitchen.

I had two missed texts from Katie, but they were just clarifying that I was a grown woman and could do whatever (whoever) I damn well pleased. Her words, not mine. I figured I should at least text her saying I wasn’t in need of 911s services thus far.

Me: Hey girl, I’m alive. Just wanted to let you know that I’m out in Malibu with Ari. He made me dinner at his place because nothing was open...we’ll talk about it tomorrow

Her response was instant.

Katie: Marry him

Me: Good night, Katie. Get some sleep. I’ll probably be back within the hour

Katie: Don’t worry about me. Come home...don’t come home ;) It’s all good

“Everything ok?"

Great. He must have seen me grinning at my phone like an idiot.

"She's something else," I said with a laugh as I shoved the evidence back in my purse. “She thinks I’m over here throwing myself at you.”

“She cares for you,” he said, making quick work of clearing the table.

“She’s funny as hell, but sometimes I wonder if we’re too different.”

“Perhaps she represents a side of you that you wish you could accept,” he said as he wiped his hands on a dishcloth before making his way over to me. "Not all of us are dichotomous. You're allowed to have facets."

I turned, not expecting him to be so close. He didn't hesitate as he stepped closer, our lips only a whisper away from kissing. His hands came around me, the right resting on my lower back, tugging me closer. I reached up on instinct, pulling him toward me and toward the kiss I wanted. It wasn't a gentle kiss. It wasn't predatory. It was more. Everything about Ari was more in ways I had no words to explain.

His whole body sighed beneath my fingertips as he leaned away.

“I should get you home,” he said, but it was clear that he was so not interested in taking the moral high road tonight.

“You just drank. What’s the rule, one drink: one hour. I don’t think we should chance it,” I said as I kissed him again, my fingers greedily plying through his hair. I could tell he liked it which only made me wonder what else he would like.

“You don’t play fair.” He pushed me up against the kitchen counter, the weight of his body pressing into me in that sexy I-could-overpower-you-if-I-wanted kind of way. I pushed aside the soapy discloth and hopped on the counter, wrapping my legs around him as if this were something we did all the time.

His kisses were heady and made me forget everything except him. I needed him closer. Physically we were touching but I wanted more.

"I can't,” he stepped out of my reach and it was like getting an instant cold shower to my ego.

"You can't what?" My face flamed, and I swore that if he said he had a girlfriend or that now just wasn't the right time and all that date nonsense had been a mistake, there would be a murder in Malibu tonight. His murder.

"I can't do this. I’m sorry, but I said I wanted to do this right. You never even said if you'd go out with me."

I looked down at my hands that lingered with the phantom warmth of where he'd been. This was a joke right?

"I thought it was obvious." I gestured between us. "I like you. You like me. We had dinner. Are we supposed to wait for three dates and then send out formal announcements we're dating?"

I slid off the counter, angry that I was the one who couldn't keep it together. I wanted him and he wanted to wait. That had to be some sort of first for the world, right? Or maybe it was me. Maybe he was just playing me because it was fun and I was an easy target. I was no Naomi, that's for sure. I finally decided I wanted to go for it and take risks and this was how well it went.

“No, wait, Sophie. Please don’t be mad,” Ari said as he came up behind me. He pulled me into a hug but it was too late. I was the deflated bouncy house on field day. No hug in all the world was going to make this better. At least not tonight.

“Just take me home,” I said as I tried to go toward the car, but he only hugged me tighter.

"I'm not letting go until you say you're not mad."

"Well be prepared to stand there forever," I grumbled, but already I could feel my mood shifting.

He kissed my neck once, gauging my reaction. “Please don’t be mad. I don't want to rush through the beginning. I promise we'll get there.” Another kiss. "But right now the last thing we need is to rush. Let's take our time. Get to know each other."

I wiggled out of his grasp, turning to look at him. He looked different. Human. He was really worried and there was something else there. Something I couldn't quite place.

“I thought this was my night to be spontaneous."

"And you were."

"No like...spontaneous." I was hoping he could hear the difference this time.

“Come with me.” He took my hand in his, gently pulling me to go with him. “I want to show you something.”

We walked past the kitchen and the living room toward the west end of the house, passing a few closed doors, but it was clear that the door at the end of the hall was where we were headed.

“This room is my mother’s,” he said, pushing open the wooden door to reveal a quaint cream-toned room with soft linen curtains and family portraits everywhere. He walked over to her bedside table, picking up a frame with a worn wedding picture and a framed note at the bottom. A handwritten vow.

“It's beautiful,” I said as I read over the words scrawled in loopy cursive.

To my Antonia. I vow to love and cherish you until there comes a day when we must part, and when that happens, my darling, I hope to watch over you until you can be by my side once again, for that is where you will always belong.

“They each go on for a while, but that was his first vow to her. She always said that was the first time he'd been candid of his love,” Ari said before setting the frame back beside the bed. “He was a man of few words.”

“And her vow to him?” I asked, looking around around the room. Surely it had to be here somewhere.

“It’s in Italy. They buried him with her copy." He ran his hands through his hair, setting the frame back on the empty bedside table. "My mother’s never been the same. She still talks about him like he's alive. It drives me crazy sometimes.”

I didn't know what to say. I never knew the right thing to say about death. Sorry felt like I had done something wrong. My sincerest condolences was too cold. And They will always be with you seemed too Lion King. So I stood there in the silence, wishing I had the words to say I understood. That I had been acting childish because the reality was, I wanted what his parents' had too.

“I should get you home,” he said as he led me back to his car. This time, the silence was welcomed. We didn't need to say more. There was an unspoken understanding between us that existed on a completely different plane. We would do this right. Together.

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