Italian Heart

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Chapter 9

And fierce I was. Fiercely hungover.

My alarm burned my eardrums as I rolled over, trying to quell the echo of sounds going in and out of my head as I came to reality. I pressed the end button on my phone, knowing damn well that I’d never get to work on time if I snoozed, but the thought was tempting. Maybe five more minutes. Or fifty.

I groaned and let my face fall back into the covers. Why was it always so hard to get out of bed when you knew you had to?

Reaching for the light, I nearly fell off the bed because silly me didn’t realize she slept horizontally on a vertical mattress, but I found the switch anyway, nearly blinding myself in my stupidity.

“Oh my god, is this death,” I muttered as I rubbed the sleep from my eyes and checked my phone for messages.

“Not quite,” a deep voice said, sending me into a fit of screams as I fell off the bed, disoriented and tangled in my bamboo sheets.

“What the hell are you doing here?” I asked as I tried to stand, but my head was killing me, so I leaned on the bed for support. “Seriously, how the fuck did you get into my apartment?” I rubbed the swelling spot on my hip with disbelief as I looked over a disheveled—albeit attractive—looking Ari Bellisario as he leaned against the wall by my bathroom, his expression clearly displeased.

“You called last night saying you hated me and everything I stood for. Then proceeded to get lost in downtown L.A. with Katie. Do you know how hard it was finding you two? Josh will be prematurely gray after last night,” he said as he gestured toward the general direction of my roommate and her boyfriend. "If Katie didn't tag you on Instagram getting shitty nachos at a 7-Eleven, who knows what would have happened?"

Without warning, my bedroom door flew open, revealing a frying-pan-wielding Katie with some serious raccoon-eyes.

“Are you ok, girl? I heard screams,” she shouted as she assessed the situation. She definitely lost a bit of her hearing last night. That was not her indoor voice.

Rapidly, she looked for the source of my scream, her eyes landing on Ari and then me a few times before the pan lowered slightly.

“Yeah, I’m fine. I didn’t remember that he was here,” I said my as head throbbed like I was taking a boot to the face. “Please tell me it’s Saturday, and that we just overslept Friday.”

Katie just shook her head and lowered the pan to her side.

“I wish, babe, but you’ve got work in an hour. If that.”

“Kill me,” I said as I ignored Ari, grabbing my Friday outfit and walking to the bathroom to assess the damage. Dark, brown eyes framed with bluish bags greeted me as I rubbed some brightening cleanser on my face and went through my regular routine, taking the time to properly get rid of all that nasty makeup I’d worn last night.

“Aren’t you going to say anything?” Ari asked as he followed me into the bathroom, his expression saying he expected a nicer response than what I was giving him.

“Thanks for rescuing me from myself,” I said as I rubbed at the smudges my old mascara left around my eyes. “Look, I’ll take your number off my phone, and it’ll never happen again.”

I tried not to let myself feel completely dejected at the thought, but it was high time I stopped apologizing for every single thing I did. So I messed up. Everyone has a night where someone else had to be a hero. Normally, the hero just offered some water and left at the first sign of life instead of being the alcohol police, but beggars can’t be choosers, can they?

“Why do you keep pushing me away? I’m trying to be there for you.” Our eyes met in the mirror, making me pause. Why was he being such a good guy? Why now?

“Ari, I told you. I don’t really know you. I don’t want to be your slutty personal assistant or that girl who marries the rich guy and plays tennis before brunch. That’s not me. I have dreams and things that I'm willing to work hard for and none of that involves finding someone to do it for me.”

“I never said we’re getting married,” he said, crossing his arms over his chest. “And I’m starting to think that that’s the last thing we’d do at this point. You clearly have something bothering you, and it’s got nothing to do with liking or not liking me.”

“Look, I like you, a lot, but you moved so fast I half expected to be engaged by the merger."

He scoffed. "I moved fast?"

"Yes, you moved fast. You brought me to your house and cooked for me on our first date. You showed me your parents vows and talked about so much more than anyone trying to take things slow."

"So what should I have done? Treated you like shit?"

"No. That's not what I'm saying."

He crossed his arms over his chest. "Then what are you saying."

"Ari, I know you mean well, but I’m 22. I don't have all the answers, but I want something that feels real, and this doesn’t.”

“I understand,” he said as he ran his hand through his hair, mussing it up in frustration.

Ugh, why can’t girls just do that? That kind of look takes a solid twenty minutes and product.

“You know, what. Don’t bother giving me an answer. I’ll find another assistant.”

With that, Ari walked out of my bathroom and out of my life. It was Kyle all over again, but I was determined not to have regrets anymore. We were both doing what was right for each other. I was being an adult and saying my truth.

“Oh my god, honey, I swear I wasn’t eves dropping. I was bringing you a smoothie,” Katie said as she set the strawberry-kale concoction onto the counter and pulled me into her chest. Her hug comforted me, but is also served as a reminder that she was a fleeting figure in my life. Soon, she’d be living with Josh, and I’d be alone. It was just too much to handle.

“I’m quitting,” I said as I backed away from her. “Seriously, I’m done with ARK. I’ll call Uncle Oscar to apologize, but I’m leaving L.A. for a while. It’s time I go.”

“Wait, you can’t leave! Well, you can, but no! Where the heck are you going? Napa?” Katie looked me in the eye severely, trying to check for brain damage before shrugging and sipping my smoothie.

“I’m going to see my nonna in Tuscany,” I said as I pushed some necessities into a makeup bag. “She always writes asking me to visit. I’m taking her up on it now.”

“Because Ari picked our drunk assess up and made sure we didn’t die? Please don’t do this. Think it over a little bit. Josh said he was worried sick over you."

“This isn’t about Ari or anyone else. I can’t stick around pretending that everything’s ok. I want to do this. It’s the end of summer. I’m being spontaneous. I’ll be back in a few months with a clear head and maybe a decision on what I want my life to be. I know you’ll be ok here. You have Josh. I've got enough to cover rent until December. You’ll be fine.” I braced myself against the counter for a moment, trying to think through this as clearly as I could. “All I keep thinking about is what happens if I take the predictable route my whole life? What if I have regrets about everything? I’m 22, and I regret so much already.”

“Hear me out. I know you’re frustrated, but you can’t leave today. Go to the lunch. Give Uncle Oscar your best. If you feel up to it, go on the date with Ari and make it like a final goodbye. Then leave,” she said, her hazel eyes piercing mine with unexpected fervor. “That way there’re no what-ifs to wonder about. You’ll start your new chapter regret free.”

It sounded like a good idea even though I knew she was stalling for time. When I got like this, the combination of my impulsivity and pride became dangerous if I acted on it. And I was read to jump. More ready than ever.

“Fine, but I’m buying my ticket today. I’m not changing my mind,” I said as I turned on the shower.

“I’ll even give you Josh’s miles. He doesn’t need them anyway,” she said as she rushed to tell Josh that all his work travels were going toward my flight. Knowing him, he wouldn’t even care if it meant he and Katie had the apartment to themselves for a few months. When he was in town, that is.

I quickly showered, trying not to enjoy the warmth of the water too much as I thought of all the adventures I’d be having. For once, my future wasn’t some bleak and dreary idea after all. I visited Nonna when I was young, but all I could remember were the thick, rolling hills covered in farmland and hues of green and gold. Right now, it sounded like heaven compared to the city.

“Fifteen minutes, girl,” Katie shouted into the bathroom before I shut off the water, dried my hair, and dressed in my smart blazer, white blouse, and black pants—a combo that always made me feel empowered.

“You don’t even look hungover,” Katie said as she Euro kissed me and handed over a cookie. I looked at it hesitantly, but I needed something to hold me over before lunch. “Eh, hearty breakfasts are for chumps. Enjoy the cookie.”

Unfortunately, my car was still at the office, so I was wasting precious cash on my commute to work taking an Uber, but it at least afforded me the luxury of a few extra minutes of rest.

“Kiddo, you look...different. Join me in my office for a moment, would you?” Uncle Oscar greeted me the second I stepped out of the elevator. Most of the office was going directly to the luncheon, so I was one of only a few that were actually working this morning.

I walked into his office quickly, trying not to grimace as another wave of my headache coursed over my forehead.

“Rough night?” he asked as he smiled over his desk knowingly.

“That bastard,” I whispered, realizing that Ari gave him a heads up before recovering myself. “I wanted to celebrate early, but...well, it wasn’t my most memorable night.” I didn’t have the heart to tell him I somehow made an ass of myself in front of his nephew and successor.

“Things happen and words are said. That doesn’t mean you need to let your pride blind you.”

“My pride isn’t the problem, Uncle Oscar. I’m not happy. I kept thinking that making it through a big internship would do it for me. It’s what I worked toward. It’s what I told myself was the end goal for college. And then I got here, and I feel like I’m not the same person I imagined I would be.”

“So what next then? I hoped you and Ari would hit it off, but I’m no judge of true love over here.” He just sipped his tea and gave a shrug.

“I can’t believe you don’t hate him for putting you out of a job.”

Uncle Oscar shrugged, looking toward a picture on his desk before smiling at me.

“Things happen when they need to and don’t think I didn’t notice the red herring, kiddo. I know you’re planning something.” He paused, a small smile playing across his tired face. “There’s always a plan when it comes to you.”

“I’m getting out of L.A. for a while. You know, to clear my head.”

“I take it your mother is the lucky recipient of a surprise visit.”

I smiled at his attempt to fish the information from me.

“I’m not telling anyone except my roommate. I’ll leave the information behind with Katie so she can contact people in an emergency, but this is something I need to do. If I tell Mom, she’ll find a way to have me put on LAXs no-fly list, and I don’t need that. I’m a grown woman. I can travel on my own now.”

“Then I won’t stop you, kiddo. Just be safe. And before you go running off, here. I was clearing out my desk and thought you should have this.” He handed over a sealed envelope with my name on it. I tore it open with my index finger and pulled out a check for five grand.

“You had a check in my name just lying around?” I asked in disbelief. It was money I never expected to receive for my time at ARK, but I would be a fool not to accept it. My bank account was slowly depleting, and it would only be a matter of time before I ended up broke and taking temp jobs for any source of income.

“Oh, just take it and say thank you,” he said before walking around his desk and pulling me into a tight hug. “Be safe, Sophia. I don’t know what I’d do if something happened to you.”

“Aye aye, captain,” I said, trying not to tear up. “I’ll have Katie call you when I land so you know I made it safe.”

“And consider making your phone international. Just incase I need to talk to my favorite god daughter from time to time.”

“I’m your only god daughter.”

We laughed for a second, both of us realizing that this would be the last time we could just talk for a while.

“Mr. Belvida, your 9:30 is here,” Meghan said over the intercom, making Uncle Oscar frown.

“I have to pack up all my stuff, and then I’m needed at the restaurant. I’ll see you then,” I said with a little wave as I slipped the check into the zippered compartment of my bag.

On my way out, I pretended not to notice that Ari was waiting to go in. I also pretended not to notice that he’d showered, changed, and looked like a goddamn Greek god as he scrolled through messages on his phone, his face pulled into the composed scowl that made his jaw look sharp enough to pierce through any of the damaged armor I was trying to amass around my heart.

At my cubicle, I tried not to let my emotions get to me as I grabbed the few things I kept here, saving the portrait of my mom and I in Santorini for last. That one was always my favorite. I was maybe eight or nine, and my father was on some international trip to Asia so we traveled that summer. For some reason, this was the only picture we took, but it said everything. It also made me feel really guilty for not calling my mom as much as I should.

“Hey, Sophie, are you heading over to Girasole? My car didn’t start this morning, and I've already spend half my rent in Uber this month,” Tory asked as she balanced a box of name cards and decorations.

“Yeah, I’m heading there now.”

We started walking toward the elevators, but I felt like I was being watched, so my eyes instinctively looked toward Uncle Oscar’s office. Both men in question were looking our way, their faces grim. I quickly looked away before I said or did something stupid like wave. Damn them and their overprotectiveness. It almost made me doubt if I should even do any of this at all.

“I just need to drop off my security badge and then we can go.”

“I do too,” Tory said as she pressed the elevator button with her elbow. “I’m not sticking around for the merger. I have an offer in New York for my dream job. It’s’s perfect.”

“That’s amazing,” I said as we stepped into the elevator. “Wow, when did you find out?”

“Last night. I mean, the pay isn’t that amazing, but it sure beats working for Marjorie. In a few years, I might even be able to move up in the company, or at least that’s what the later from HR said. I’m sorry for bragging, it’s just I haven’t told anyone yet, but I think I’ve finally caught my break.”

“Me too,” I whispered as we headed toward the reception, our lives preparing to take completely separate paths.

Girasole looked different from yesterday with the oblong, white tables being reorganized around a mock speaking area staged by the bar. Tory and I, along with a few of the caterers, were responsible for moving the tables around so that everyone had a direct view of the head table. Marjorie’s idea, not ours.

“Table 5 is being blocked by Table 3. Be sure to fix that,” Marjorie said as we set down the last table. Of course it was.

Let me be clear. Moving tables was not fun. Moving tables in heels was so much worse. Add in Marjorie barking demands from across the room, and it really became a party.

“I hate her,” Tory mouthed as soon as Marjorie turned her back.

“Wow, everything looks great,” an unfortunately familiar voice called as the main door opened.

Tory did one of those friendly smiles that said she still thought I’d be interested to know that Ari had arrived, which, you know yesterday I would have been but 12 hours changes a lot apparently.

We picked up Table 3, edging it more toward the center of the room so that we could reposition the others behind it.

“Ladies, do you need help moving anything?” Ari asked the second we set number 3 on the floor.

“Actually, my wrist is acting up. An old volleyball injury. Could you help Sophie move 5 while I go look for some ice?” Tory said, completely and utterly ruining the eye-contact-avoidance maneuver I had going on.

“Of course,” he said as I walked toward the side of the table I’d be lifting.

I felt his eyes on me as he approached his side of the table, but I knew from the second he offered that he was trying to get me to talk to him.

“We just need to move it three steps my way.” Figuring he got the message, I motioned to lift it, but he didn’t budge.

“Sophie, we need to talk,” he said, his hands resting on the edge of the table.

“I’m pretty sure moving the table isn’t rocket science. No deliberation necessary,” I said as I picked up my end to visually show the concept.

“You know that’s not what I meant.” He tried to come toward me, but I wasn’t having it. Being in close proximity was not going to help and I was already starting to wish I hadn’t been so impulsive. I wasn’t good at being spontaneous. I wished I had a real plan with a real confirmation that everything was going to be ok.

“You know what? It’s fine where it is. I have to double check table arrangements before 11, and it’s quarter to,” I said as I strode into the kitchen, completely avoiding the conversation. I wasn’t stupid. I knew he could call Josh and ask what’s up. Josh was a good friend, but sometimes Josh thought he was helping when he actually made things worse. It’s why Katie was now in charge of major decisions that involved me.

“I’m looking for Marcel,” I said toward a group of waiters who were lined up in their traditional black and white attire. One particularly clean-cut guy stepped away from the others, his hair nicely combed over and his gray eyes attentive. “You’ve been assigned to serve the head table. There’s a different set of wine, so be sure to keep it separate from the others. The woman in seat four is allergic to shellfish, so serve her food first and wash your hands in between courses. I trust you know what you’re doing, but she’s recovering from surgery, so we need to be extra careful with her food, yes?”

Marcel nodded his head and smiled before going over a few more concerns he had about what needed to happen.

After speaking to a few more of the servers about diet needs, I rejoined Tory as she started greeting the familiar faces of ARK. Everyone seemed to be in good spirits as they found their name cards and sat in preparation for the meal.

“Well, it looks like it's time to relax,” Tory said before pulling me into a tight hug. “Wow, can you believe it? Out of the ten new hires, we were two of the few who survived.”

I smiled, but it felt fake. We barely survived, and that’s because I knew the boss’ boss and she was technically a paid employee that needed a legitimate reason to be fired according to HR. I'd checked.

“Honestly, I just want to curl up in my bed and sleep forever,” I admitted as we took our seats in the back at Table 11 aka the intern and semi-fired assistant table. But it’s not like we really cared. It meant the she-devil was far from our reach.

“Too much wine?” she asked as if that happened to her often.

“Something like that,” I said as I took a long swig of my water. “My roommate and I thought it was a good idea to check out this new nightclub, which is so unlike me, but I’ll admit it. We had fun.”

“Oh, I never do stuff that’s fun anymore,” Tory said before the sound of someone speaking into a mic caught our attention.

“Good morning, everyone.” Marjorie’s sickly sweet voice made my stomach roil as she went on to talk about Uncle Oscar as though he were responsible for world peace and ending hunger across the globe. He not once but twice tried to stop her overzealous praise, but she just kept it coming.

“Two more hours,” I said as I raised my glass to Tory.

She clearly had the same thought as we clinked our glasses and tried not to giggle uncontrollably.

“Eh, hem.” Marjorie cleared her throat over the mic, but it didn't matter. She could go right back to hell for all I cared.

“Can we just ditch this and grab some nachos?” I whispered as the speech dragged on, but Tory just shook her head.

“I wish, but I don’t want to be rude to Mr. Belvida. He wrote me a personal recommendation when we talked after the luncheon Wednesday. He wasn’t thrilled that I was leaving, but he wished me well.”

“Please enjoy your lunch this afternoon as a personal thank you for all you’ve contributed to ARK,” Uncle Oscar said into the mic, ending Marjorie’s rant before she started recapping his childhood and motioned for the salads to be served.

“So what’s next for you?” Tory asked as she dug into her food. I wasn’t terribly hungry for salad and would do bad things for some cheese fries right about now.

“I’m taking some time off,” I said as I pushed around the food on my plate. “You know, to see what I really want to do with my life.”

“Oh, like that food and prayer movie everyone raved about a few years ago?”

“Eh, not to that extent. I have family over in Italy, and I want to go somewhere where I can do some soul searching without the pressure of falling behind.”

“Wow, that sounds amazing. My relatives live in Cleveland, but I definitely don’t want to find myself there,” she said with a laugh before pushing aside her plate. “So what about Ari? I’d have to be blind not to notice there was something between you two, but today it’s different. Was he out with you last night?”

I just shrugged. “We’re friends,” I said as the waiter removed our plates. “We talked about the potential for more, but I’m not ready.”

“Oh man, I don’t think I could ever say no to that man,” Tory said as two steaming plates of pasta carbonara were placed before us. “I thought I ordered the salmon.” She looked over at the other tables as if re-affirming that it was an option before looking at the waiter.

“The catering fell short a few plates, so this was the replacement,” he said before rushing off to hide in the kitchen.

“Well, I can’t say I mind, but my diet is destroyed for the day.”

I shrugged and kept my eyes on my plate. I knew what this was. A peace offering. God, he was so freaking amazing, and if I had met him when I was looking for some guy to marry straight out of college, I would never let him go. But everything he did felt constricting. Yeah, sure, I’d want for nothing, but I’d be nothing and have nothing. Well, that might be a bit of an exaggeration, but hell, if I knew why I felt the way I did all the time, I wouldn’t be having this internal crisis.

“Sorry, it wasn’t the caterer’s fault. Ari made this for me the other day. I think he knows I’m leaving and wants to try and get my attention somehow. But if it’s any consolation, it’s probably the best meal you’ll have in a while. I literally ate like a monster when he made it for me.”

“Wait, he’s that hot and can cook? Honey, you might need to seek some professional help. My boyfriend won’t even help me clean the dishes and still refers to himself in the third person when asking for a beer,” Tory said with a shrug.

“I take it he’s not coming to New York?”

“Actually, he lives in Manhattan. It’s kinda why I looked for a job there in the first place. I mean, don’t get me wrong, he can bro out at times, but he treats me well and loves me. It’s really all I need.”

I watched her twirl the noodles on her plate before taking a bite of the creamy dish.

“Oh sweet baby Jesus. I think I’ve tasted heaven.”

I laughed and took a bite of my own, trying not to remember the last time I had it. The memories of him smiling at me from across the table were leaving me wishing I knew what I wanted from life. But I didn’t.

“I know, I know. I must be out of my mind,” I said as she tried to maintain decorum while inhaling the food. This time I was having better luck.

“Who am I to judge what’s best for you? If you’re not happy, you’re not happy. And if Ari really wants to date you, then that should be important to him,” Tory said, her face turning serious. “Does he know?”

“Not yet, but I think I should tell him. We had a date planned for tomorrow, but I think that offer’s been removed. We had a fight this morning, and honestly, it might be for the best. If I go off to Italy knowing he’s here missing me, I’ll feel guilty and come right back. I’m not sure if there’s any right way to explain it. I just have this urge to get on a plane and be spontaneous.”

“Ladies,” a voice called to us as the speaker approached, drawing our attention toward the man we were just talking about.

I nodded and gave a brief smile before looking around. It looked like everyone was mingling before dessert, so his appearance at the table wouldn’t draw too much attention.

All of a sudden, the theme from New York, New York broke through the awkward introduction and a picture of whom I presumed to be Tory’s boyfriend popped up on her screen. She looked to me and then Ari, mentally calculating how it would go if she took the call, but I just gave her a look to let her know it was ok.

“Sorry,” she whispered before taking her call outside.

“So I hear you’re leaving L.A. for a while,” Ari said as he took Tory’s chair, his legs only inches from mine. I tried to pretend that I wasn’t affected, but I was, and we both knew it. "Seems a bit...sudden."

“It’s not forever,” I said as I looked around for Uncle Oscar. He was having his ear talked off by Marjorie by the bar, so I was stuck with sorting through everything now instead of having time to plan out if I even wanted to tell Ari.

“So should I take this as you wanting a change of scenery or just distance from me?” he asked, his tone almost destroying my resolve.

“I’m sorry,” I said as I reached for his hand. “This isn’t about anyone but me. I want an adventure. I thought that the corporate world was that for me, but I’m miserable. I won’t get a chance to do this again. I have no obligations, no ties, nothing is holding me back. I need an adventure."

“Why do I feel like you’re lying to me? This morning, you didn’t have plans to go off to somewhere unknown, but hours after we fight, you have your bags packed and won’t tell anyone where the heck you’re going.”

“It’s no ones business,” I said as I pulled my hand away. “I don’t expect you to understand.”

“But I want to. I’m trying so hard to figure out what I can do to make you wait. I’ll go with you, wherever it is. I’ll go,” Ari said as he ran his fingers through his hair. “I’m sorry. I’ve overstepped myself. I just...I thought I finally found what my parents had. That first day we met, I felt drawn to you. Like something was physically forcing me to notice how extraordinary you were.”

“You didn’t overstep yourself, Ari. I’m just...I’m not ready. I like you, but I need to love myself first, but if I come back, and things have changed for me, I’ll give you a call.”

“You'll give me a call?"

"I don't know what else there is to say."

"Will you at least tell me where you’re headed? I will make it easier if I know you’re someplace safe.”

“Italy,” I said with a smile. “I’m visiting my nonna.”

Ari’s shoulders visibly relaxed at the thought of my ending up in his home country, but I wasn’t foolish enough to tell him where exactly I was headed.

“Then buon viaggio, cara. If you happen to be in Fiesole, ask for my mother. I’ll send word that you may stop by,” he said as he stood, his posture rigid. I watched as he said a few hellos to his new employees before walking into the kitchen and disappearing for the rest of the hour.

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