Excerpt: Shadow of the Portico

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Prologue
Bologna 1578

 

Giovanni stopped. He wanted to remember everything.

The two towers over there meant that the Piazza Maggiore was to his right. He blew out his breath in a chilly cloud and nodded. Except there was another tower over there, and there, that shouldn’t be there. And the other towers, everywhere. For some reason, the extra towers scared the hell out of him, gave him a weak vertigo you can only get standing in the middle of an open, flat street.

His vision blurred without his glasses, but he managed. Nobody here had glasses. Did they need them? Who else lived in blurs and confusion? For that matter, who else was as befuddled as him? Pretty much nobody, he guessed with a chuckle.

A few steps in that unpaved, damp street reminded him again that things weren’t right. His boots didn’t protect his feet from the cold, pressed mud that should have been concrete. Walking on the cobblestones was little better, and the marble beneath many of the porticoes was almost worse. He wished he had arch support insoles.

A man walked into him as he focused on his feet, bouncing off Giovanni and never breaking his conversation with a companion. The man spoke emphatically and gesticulated with abandon.

Okay, some things never change in Italy, he thought wryly.

The man’s companion turned and stared at Giovanni, likely never having seen a man so tall. While he had hoped to fit in here, he stood several inches above most everybody, despite affecting a slouchy lope so it wasn’t as obvious.

He inhaled deeply as he walked, taking in the scents of livestock, mud, unwashed humanity, bread. Another deep breath added garlic, its familiarity comforting. He wanted to smell cars, buses, cigarettes, motorcycles, the things that gave Bologna—his Bologna—their scent. But those things weren’t in this Bologna. Those things belonged to an Industrial Revolution that hadn’t happened yet.

Another pungent scent reminded him that danger lurked in the street where animals had the right of way. He dodged and weaved and reminded himself to pay attention.

Look around, don’t forget anything.

Two women holding baskets at their hips smiled at him from the portico as he approached. Even wrapped in shawls and loose cloaks, their curves caught his attention, their warm eyes moving over his lithe body, even as his moved over theirs. He wiggled his eyebrows at them and they giggled as he passed nearby.

Just as he felt his ego crest at the women’s admiration, one of them sneezed. And again. Right out there into the universe. A few tiny droplets sparkled on his sleeve.

Germs. They don’t know about germs.

Giovanni hurried past them with a shudder. He tucked his chin into his cloak, inhaling through its woolen warmth, hoping it might keep his immune system protected.

A horse held by its bridle clopped by as his rider walked next to him. Chickens balked their complaints from a coop on the side of the road. A man grunted as he used a two-handed sander on a piece of wood. Rubbing, then blowing the dust, wiping with a cloth, a close examination, sanding again. Giovanni drifted toward the workshop window and smelled the sawdust. The chickens ruffled their feathers. People’s voices floated from the workshop, from the street, from everywhere, unconcerned about privacy as they were about germs.

Remember everything.

A couple kissed in a doorway, his hand on her waist, hers on his cheek. He was backing away, but her heavy-lidded eyes seemed to pull him back to her, and he indulged in one more kiss. Lovers, judging from those looks, the magnetism that pulled them together and made it so hard for them to part. Finally, the man left her with lingering gazes, walking backward and away before turning to go. Giovanni was so close to him, he could almost feel the air move with the man’s sigh.

Giovanni stopped. Now he wanted to forget everything. Forget where and when he was. Forget what he was supposed to be doing. Forget it all and go back home to her. Take her in his arms, beg her forgiveness, wipe the tears from her big, summer blue eyes, and love her until the world and all its problems finally gave up and left them alone.


Chapter 1

Chicago, Saturday, February 28, 2015

 

Those who are able to journey have the ability coursing through their veins. They are born with it. People and things will reach out to them in ways nobody else can understand. It is a communication not of the mind, but of the very soul. Those who journey must contend with Fate when she chooses to wake them. It is never expected, never sought, always deeply disconcerting. The strongest ones are those who believe the unknown, who accept the unexpected. They do not worry about momentary circumstances. They are embraced and swept away by the immediacy and the eternity of life. That is how they transcend time itself.

From The Wisdom of the Journey

Author(s) unknown

 

 

 

Giovanni Capello wanted to be anywhere but home alone. He had an epiphany there that growled and snapped at him, and he wasn’t ready to tame it. He was weak and tired, and it would eat him alive. Home needed a purge and a cleanse. He probably could have used that himself. Instead, he sat in a crowded cafe rummaging through social media. He might have been better off at home.

Staring at his tablet and scrolling through the explosion of posts he had caused, Giovanni felt the stirrings of a massive headache. He hoped to kill it with more caffeine, and waved at a waitress carrying a coffee carafe. Breaking up with his fiancée, Elena, was bound to be controversial, but it was the right thing to do, despite the headaches.

An entire mythology had emerged in the fourteen hours since the breakup. Giovanni’s quiet assertion that he needed to find himself was countered by Elena’s pronouncement that she was too good for him. She was an up-and-coming model and he was some nobody advertising guy, so it was unacceptable that he should leave her. All of this implied, not explicit, in words meant to make her sound strong and full of regret. He guessed that her sudden eloquence on the matter came from her PR firm, where Giovanni himself worked. Traitors. Of course people took sides, mostly hers. Elena was right, they said. Giovanni was a sleazy womanizer. Too lackadaisical. Too selfish, hedonistic, unambitious, and any number of other unflattering and entirely truthful adjectives.

Indeed, he might have been better off at home alone, perhaps hiding under a bed, possibly in a fetal position.

His introspection was broken by his cousin Matt calling. Giovanni had tried ignoring his phone as it blasted questions by the shocked and curious who wondered what happened to the perfect couple. He wasn’t up to explaining over and over. But this was Matt. Matt was cool. Matt would understand.

“Hey,” Giovanni said, answering the phone.

“What the actual hell are you thinking?”

He slumped a little. So much for support. “Well, a pleasant good afternoon to you, too.”

“You dumped Elena, or she dumped you?”

“It was me. But let’s go with, we had an amicable breakup. What do they call it? A conscious uncoupling?”

“You dumped Elena. A model. You dumped her.”

Giovanni lifted his glasses to pinch the bridge of his nose, trying to push away the throbbing that persisted in his head. “You know, there’s more to relationships than how hot your woman is.”

The silence on the other end of the phone communicated Matt’s disagreement.

“It wasn’t working, you know that,” Giovanni continued, running his hand through his dark hair only to have it fall back in his eyes. “We have nothing in common. We don’t have the same values. I hate where our lives were going. She’s allergic to the cat.”

“Wait. You have values?”

“Yeah. Geez, man, I thought you’d understand.”

“Nope, you stumped me, dude.”

Giovanni looked at his tablet. He swiped to several open browsers with articles that he found himself reading and re-reading. How Sexual Addiction Ruined Our Marriage . . . Sexual Addiction: Is It Real? . . . A Christian Man’s Journey from Sexual Addiction.

“I have some issues,” Giovanni told Matt, cringing at the understatement and waving away another coffee refill.

“Clearly.”

Matt was trying to make light of it, but his comments stung Giovanni more than Matt could have realized. “You know, I could really use some support right now.”

After an awkward silence, Matt asked, “So, uh, are you okay?”

“I will be. I just need to be on my own for a while.”

“I predict that’ll last about fifteen minutes.”

“Really, Matt?”

“Sorry. Hey, Mamma wants you to come for dinner. She’s making enough ziti to feed the south side and maybe some Cubs fans too.”

“Tell her I’ll come. You gonna be there or do you have a date?”

“I’ll be there. No girl is worth missing ziti. Well, Elena might have been.”

It was Giovanni’s turn for disapproving silence.

“So yeah, call me if you need anything, seriously,” Matt said. “See you at seven.”

“Thanks.”

Giovanni turned off his phone and picked up a menu. He had a rock in the pit of his stomach and wasn’t really hungry, but it was the thing to do, order lunch. This is what I do, he thought. I do what I’m expected to do, what everyone says I should do. I obey the clock. If I’m not hungry, why should I order lunch? He put down the menu. Yep, not ordering.  It was lame, of course, but it was something. He would take control of his life one missed meal and broken engagement at a time.


 

There’s nothing like an old school cafe in Chicago for people-watching. For Giovanni, who had a passion for sociology, it was like getting lost in a good book. He was getting no satisfaction from his phone or his tablet at this point, so it was time to close them and exist in the wide world for a few minutes.

Muted February sunshine lit the long dining room of the cafe, and the din of collective conversation made it hard to hear anything specific. The bustle and noise was a soothing distraction, and today he appreciated being able to hide in a crowd.

He watched a couple beside him ignoring each other and staring at their phones. It reminded him of Elena, how he teased her that she stared at her phone so much, one day she wouldn’t be able to raise her head. She would grunt, “Heh,” her polite laugh, and not look up.

“See?” he’d say, “It’s happening already!”

She didn’t get it.

At another table, two older women laughed and leaned in close, clearly in the throes of magnificent gossip. A mouth-covering conspiratorial laugh was punctuated with, “He did NOT!” and more laughter and nodding. Apparently, he did so.

Giovanni bit back a chuckle and caught a conversation at the table in front of his. A girl was using sign language to the busboy, saying, “. . . no place to go. Please!

The busboy said, “Come on, Sarah, you’ve been here all morning.” He nodded toward the front, where a grumpy boss stood sentry. The café was full, and the girl had nothing in front of her but a laptop, books, and an empty cup of coffee. Her waitress was losing tips from Sarah’s table.

Well, well, Giovanni thought, a damsel in distress. Too young to be a temptation. He paused half a second and took a second look. Right, too young. Good. The last thing he needed today was a temptation, but he welcomed the chance to be a gentleman. He stood and cleared his throat.

“Excuse me, I couldn’t help overhearing . . . over . . . seeing . . .?” He used sign language to ask her, “Do you need a place to work?” The busboy shook his head, but the girl’s eyes were huge. She reminded him of a starving orphan in a Depression-era movie, pressed against the window of a café full of people eating. Rather a bad analogy, since that was more or less what she was. Giovanni waved off the busboy. “It’s all right, I can use the company.” It was truer than he’d want the general public to know. Nonetheless, he flashed them both a winning smile that only someone who could afford to be magnanimous can give.

The girl didn’t hesitate. She piled up all her worldly goods in one mountainous stack. Giovanni was there in a moment, helping her move her things and getting her settled across from him at his table. She looked up at him with a small, tired grin.

“Thanks,” she signed, her hand moving in a downward arc from her chin to her other open palm in front of her. “I’m— not— deaf,” she said with a thick stuttering hesitation in front of each word.

“Oh.” He processed it. The girl used sign language because she had a speech impediment. “Well, it’s nice to meet you. I’m . . .” He hesitated, not wanting to throw a long Italian name at her and have the poor girl stumble over it for the next ten minutes. “I’m John.”

“Sarah,” she said clearly.

Are you hungry?” He caught himself signing a C down his chest and pointing at her. He stopped with an embarrassed grin, cleared his throat and said, “Sorry, habit.  Hungry?”

She sighed and flitted a glance at the empty coffee cup she’d brought over from the other table. Giovanni couldn’t get two sips of coffee down before the waitress refilled his, but hers was bone dry. Sarah bit her lip and furrowed her brow, then shrugged noncommittally.

He wasn’t sure what to do. “I was thinking of getting some lunch,” he lied, appreciating the fact that not ordering lunch was a victory a few moments ago. “What’s good here?” He knew perfectly well what was good there. He was trying to make conversation and perhaps figure what this girl might eat so he wouldn’t feel guilty under the scrutiny of those huge, weary eyes.

Soup,” Sarah signed after a moment. “French onion. Amazing.” The sign for amazing looked like she was raising the roof, and Giovanni couldn’t help but smile.

“Hm, I don’t think I’ve ever had it.” He found it on the menu. Onions, broth, a crouton, cheese. It didn’t sound especially roof-raising to him. “Do you want some?”

Sarah shook her head.

“Do you want anything?”

She shook her head with a frown and started to work again.

So, it was going to be like that, was it? He got his waitress’s attention to put in an order. “I’ll have a chicken Caesar salad and . . . some French onion soup.”

“Cup or a bowl?”

He glanced at the starving orphan martyr across from him. “A bowl. And can you bring a bread basket, too? And iced tea.” He made sure Sarah wasn’t watching and gestured “two” for the teas.

“You got it.”

“There, that should buy us some wifi time.”

Sarah nodded, but didn’t look up from her laptop, her face tight.

Giovanni picked up his tablet again, closed the tabs to all those depressing articles he had been reading, and covertly checked out this Sarah girl. She read, then thought, typed, shook her head, frowned, and went round and round through her mental exercises. She was definitely young, maybe twenty, tops. She wore an oversized heather gray hoodie, no makeup, and had a mass of blonde frizzy curls exploding from a ponytail on top of her head. Her most striking feature were those big, sad, blue eyes. They were compelling. They weren’t the same color as the sky outside, sub-zero winter blue. Her eyes were more like the summer sky blue. A day at the beach blue. A bushy-bushy blonde hairdo, surfin’ USA Beach Boys blue.

She caught him staring at her and he coughed a laugh. “Sorry, was I staring? I was thinking about the Beach Boys.” She raised a brow, and he hid behind his tablet. Now he had Surfin’ USA rolling around in his head, a perfect mental soundtrack for February in Chicago.

Lunch soon arrived. The French onion soup had a thick, comforting blanket of cheese over it and he figured that must have been the appeal. He pushed the cheese over and tasted the broth. “Mm, you’re right,” he said, “it’s not bad.”

She was too busy staring at the fresh-baked bread rolls to hear him.

“Okay, listen,” he said to her. “I can’t possibly eat all this. The soup is fine, but I’d rather have my salad. Can I give this to you?”

She fixed a doleful stare at him that made him want to get up and give her a comforting hug.

“Will you at least eat the bread? I have to go easy on the carbs,” he said, patting his flat belly. Actually, he probably could have used a few carbs.

She finally acquiesced and nodded, whispered thanks and took a roll. Giovanni noticed her face alter when she bit into the bread. Her eyes closed, and she sighed in a decidedly sensual manner. She didn’t appear quite so young when she did that. It was certainly a better expression than the tight, proud hunger.

“Here, have the soup.” If a piece of bread did that to her, he imagined what the soup would do. He wasn’t disappointed. She was a woman possessed, the sexiest eater he had ever seen. He scanned around, hoping nobody else was noticing the raw carnality on her face. He didn’t want to break the spell, but he leaned in and whispered, “It’s good, eh?”

She looked at him as if surprised to see him there. “I’m— sorry,” she said, choking down the bread. “I haven’t— eaten— since— yester—day morning. Oh, this is— so . . .” She closed her eyes again.

That pretty much ended the magic for him. “What’s the matter? Why haven’t you been eating?”

She stopped chewing and glanced at him with guilty eyes like he caught her doing something wrong, then put down her spoon.

“No, no,” he said, “please, I’m sorry. Eat, enjoy it, okay? Eat, please. Mangia!” He dug into his salad and smiled at her encouragingly.

She ate, hunger trumping shame. She went back to savoring, eyes closed, sighing.

The universe had to be laughing at him. He was seeking deeper meaning in life, abandoning shallow hedonism, cleansing his soul and ridding his life of complications, especially female complications. Yet here he was, sitting in front of a barely legal undergrad who was making love to her French onion soup. Yep. He was a cosmic riot.

“Feel better?” he asked her after a while.

She nodded. “Mm hm.” She seemed to loosen up, relaxing, even smiling a little.

“You’re working on a term paper?” he asked.

She sat up straighter. “My— disser—tation defense is— Monday.”

“Oh. You’re a graduate student?”

“I’m— finishing my— PhD.”

Okay, she must have been older than he thought. A dissertation defense. He felt sorry for her if her doctorate depended on her ability to talk her way through much of anything.

“How can I help?” he asked, flashing the magnanimous smile again.

She raised a dubious brow. “Are you— a— historian?”

“No, but I like history.”

“Oo-what do— you— do?”

“I work in advertising.”

“Hm,” she said, dismissing him. “You— have al—ready— been helpful. Thank— you.”

“My pleasure,” he said with a disarming smile. “And by the way, I have a masters in sociology that I got probably in the same building where you’ve been studying history. Maybe I wouldn’t be completely useless.” He wiggled his eyebrows at her.

“I— never— said—”

“Yeah, your face did,” he said, his hand waving a circle around her face. “You’re kind of a light read.”

Sarah opened her mouth in an abashed, insulted expression, then narrowed her eyes. “So oo-what is— my face— saying— now?” She opened a book with a thud and got back to work. With her head down, all Giovanni saw was a fright of curls on the top of her head.

He appreciated her spunk. “I can’t read your face, but your ponytail is definitely telling me to leave you alone.”

She sighed. “I’m— really grate—ful to— you. Please, if I— can— finish these— last few?”

Giovanni mimed zipping his lips and then raised his glass of tea, but couldn’t put the straw in his mouth because he zipped it up. Sarah rolled her eyes at his juvenile attempt at humor, but went back to work with half a grin on her face. When the waitress returned to clear the table, Sarah swiped two more bread rolls without even looking up.


 

Twenty-five minutes and a tea refill later, Sarah looked up from her work. “Y-you’re still— here,” she noted with a wry grin.

“So are you,” he noted back, relieved to be pulled away from his phone and the evolving drama of his highly publicized breakup. “Interested in playing Twenty Questions?”

She shrugged. “All— right,” she said and handed him her research notes.

“No, not about history. You need a break from that. No, about you. And me too, we’ll take turns. Then about history if you want. I have no place to be.” He felt rather hollow admitting that.

Sarah frowned, sighed, glanced at her work, shrugged, and nodded.

“Great! How old are you?” he asked, launching right into it.

She narrowed her eyes at him for a moment. “T-Twenty-five.”

Giovanni started asking another question.

“Oo-wait! My— turn. How old are— you?”

“Are you just gonna repeat all my questions?”

“No answering— questions— oo-with a— question.”

“Touché. I’ll be thirty this summer.”

“H-how do— you— feel about— turning thirty?”

“It’s not your turn,” he said, cutting her off. “How are you twenty-five and about to get your PhD?”

She gave him a sheepish look. “No— life?”

He chuckled. “I don’t know, I think studying is a pretty good life, eh? But I may or may not be a nerd.”

Sarah raised her brows and her expression brightened, and Giovanni was glad he said the right thing. “My— turn?” she asked, and he nodded. “Ever— consider— getting a— PhD?”

“Hm, maybe, eventually. I don’t have a lot of incentive other than making people call me Dr. Capello. Has a nice ring to it, though, huh? Doctor Capello,” he said with a far-off dreamy gaze.

She chuckled and nodded.

“Corporate types are impressed with doctors, so it could be good job security.” Not that Giovanni worried about that. He had received a healthy inheritance and was set for life. Working provided a nice social life, though, and broke up life’s monotony.

“Okay, my turn,” he said. “What are you gonna do with your PhD?”

She curled her lip. “F-frame it?”

“Not what I mean,” he said with a sing-songy voice.

Sarah cleared her throat. “I’m— trying— to— be a pro—fessor.”

She narrowed her look at him, no doubt expecting him to remind her that professors speak for a living. How often had she been told what she couldn’t do?

“That’s cool,” he said. “Your turn.”

“You— don’t think I— can.”

“That’s a statement, not a question.”

“Fine,” she said, tossing her ponytail back and raising her chin. “D-do you?”

“I don’t know. I think people can overcome a lot if they want to. So let me ask you, how do you think it’ll work? You have a plan?” He hoped he hadn’t overstepped himself, but Sarah brightened again, and he enjoyed making this shy girl open up.

“Yes. I— have some i—deas for— making it— more stu—dent centered and li—mit— how— much they— have to— hear me. If some—one oo-will— give— me a— chance.”

He nodded, imagining the possibility of it. “You know, I think someone will. I have a good feeling about you.”

Sarah frowned dubiously at first, then looked out the window and whispered, “Thanks.” The sunshine lit the shy smile that emerged. It was refreshing for Giovanni to say something nice to a woman without her taking for granted that she deserved the compliment.

“Your turn,” he said.

“Are you— married?” she blurted.

He frowned, and she blushed. He decided it was sort of amusing that she even asked, and that they both had such strong reactions to the question. That was one of those sociological Zen moments he would have loved to investigate. Just not today.

“No,” he said, holding up his unringed left hand with a terse sigh, and trying not to be obvious about checking her left hand. “Would it help you at all if you had a sign language interpreter with you when you do your defense?”

Sarah paused, her eyes wide, then she looked down, considering the possibility.

“I mean,” he continued, “you’re able to speak. We’ve been chatting up a storm here. But maybe during the more difficult times, or maybe if you get nervous, would it help to have an interpreter so you could switch to using sign? Theoretically, you know.”

She nodded. “It— might. Do you— know some—one?”

He looked out the window and blew out his breath with a huff. “There’s this one tall, dark, and handsome stranger who knows sign language, but . . .”

“Oh! Really, you’d— do that?”

“Sure,” he said, pleased that she at least thought he fit the description. “Monday, right?” He pulled out his tablet and began swiping. “You’d be done by, say, 2:00, eh?”

She nodded eagerly. “I— might be able— to get— compen—sation for you.”

He shook his head. “Doing something nice for someone instead of worrying about my own idiot self is compensation enough. Trust me.”

“Oo-wow! I— can’t— thank you— enough.”

“You’re welcome. You’re up for a question.”

She furrowed her brows and considered him. “Have you— had a— bad— day?”

He was taken aback. “Is it obvious?” he asked with a chuckle.

She shrugged. “You— seem an—xious to— do something— nice. I oo-wondered if— it meant you’re— hurting.”

Her perception was impressive. “Yes. My fiancée and I broke up.” She opened her mouth to ask for details, but he raised a finger and shook his head. “My turn, and for the love of all things holy, leave it alone.” She closed her mouth, and he took a cleansing breath. “Why are you not eating three square meals a day?”

She looked down at her hands. “I’m out of— money and I— hate going— home.”

He nodded. “Thirty looks good on paper but I feel like I have no clue what’s going on in my own life.” Sarah looked back at him interested in this, and his eyes lost their focus and his confident smile faltered. “Thirty scares the hell out of me, no lie.” He met her gaze again. “Okay, so what’s wrong at home?”

“Oo-wait. I— didn’t ask . . .” She paused when she realized she had indeed asked him how he felt about turning thirty. It had to be at least ten questions ago.

“Keep up, Sarah,” he said, enjoying her puzzled expression.

She smiled, but grew serious again with a sigh. “H-home is a— futon in the— living— room and my—  roommate has— people over.” She made a shuddering motion. “Oo-what would— your— dissertation— topic— be?”

“You’re not done yet,” he said, levelling his most piercing stare at her. “What’s wrong at home?”

Sarah shook her head, but he didn’t let her dodge the question. “They’re— creepy. Th-they’re always— getting— high and— being oo-weird. Like vampire oo-were—oo-wolf zombie oo-weird. And then—” She looked like she’d give more details, but thought better of it.

“And then what?”

“That’s a—nother— question.”

“And then what, Sarah? Come on, the rules say you have to answer the question honestly.”

“What rules?” she said, glaring at him, then blurted out all at once, “They’re— messing around all— over the apart—ment. Even—right there on— my— futon. I oo-walk in on— them all— the— time. They oo-want me to— join them.” She raised her chin with bravado and reached for her dissertation notes. “I should— get— back to— oo-work.”

He blew out a breath. Not that Giovanni was unfamiliar with the orgies and drugs lifestyle himself, but he didn’t try to drag in any unwilling participants. He guessed Sarah was very unwilling. “Do you feel safe there?” he asked, concern in his quiet question.

“No. Oo-would you?”

The question stung him, but he held her eyes until Sarah looked down, discomfited. Giovanni wasn’t sure what to say. He couldn’t tell her the truth that he’d feel perfectly safe. That  partying was how he spent too much of his free time. The truth bothered him more than he cared to admit.

“You asked about my dissertation.” he said, breaking the silence, his voice low and rough, making her look back at him. “I don’t know, something about sociology and the persuasive nature of advertising. But that’s why I haven’t gone back to do it, nothing’s turned me on yet.” He shrugged. “Okay, my turn, do you need someplace to go?”

Sarah looked out the window. “Are you— thinking of— rescuing— me or some—thing?”

“Something like that.”

“Oo-why?”

“Two questions in a row. What can I do to make sure you’re safe?” She didn’t respond. “You’re not safe at home. Do you feel safe with me?”

He realized the question was pretty forward, but she looked like she was considering it. He didn’t know why, but he needed her to feel safe. She seemed so vulnerable, even though she must have been a survivor to get this far in her studies with no apparent support. “Hey, here’s an idea—” He took out his business card and gave it to her. “This is me.” She examined it while he took out his driver’s license. “Also me.”

“Are you— John or— Gio—vanni?”

“Giovanni. I go by John professionally because people want to call me Gee-oh. I hate that. Or they want to call me Mario or Luigi or want me to make spaghetti,” he said, slipping into a deep Italian accent. “It’s not funny.”

“No, it’s— not,” she said, laughing. She read his license. “Giovanni Raphael Capello, Junior.” She said it perfectly, slow and deliberate and without a stutter, as the ghost of a smile lingered on her lips. American girls like Italian names, it seems.

“You can call me John or Vanni, whatever’s easier. And Sarah . . .?”

“MacGregor.”

“It’s a pleasure to meet you, Sarah MacGregor, the semi-homeless, soon-to-be history professor.”

“And you, Vanni, the— misplaced— scholarly ad-exec.”

He reached out his hand to shake, and she took it.

Something happened. Some sort of zap. A big zap. It was as if time stopped. He was overwhelmed by a sensation, an awareness he could only describe as significance. A less cynical man would call it fate. As though that incidental touch was when his life changed forever, no turning back.

She pulled her hand away, her eyes wide. Did she feel it too?

“I think I shocked you,” he said, laughing nervously. “Sorry about that. Kind of a Zeus shock there, eh?” But was that all it was, static electricity? Granted, that was common in the winter when sparks flew from one’s fingers all the time. He was reasonably certain it wasn’t that.

He had to know. Locking eyes with her, he reached for her hand. “Try again?”

She gave him her hand.

After the initial surge, it was like there was nothing in the room—nothing anywhere—except her touch. Her thumb caressed his, and Giovanni longed to feel her hand touching his knowing it would always be so.

Sarah let him go. They had touched for about three seconds. Three seconds of wondering what the hell he was doing, who the hell this girl was, why the hell he was so affected by her touch.

“You have— nice— hands, Vanni.” She breathed deep and stared at his long fingers. “You should— play the— piano.”

What did she say? He had to bring himself back to polite conversation mode. “No, I play the guitar.”

“Oh,” she said, smiling. It was a lovely smile. It’s amazing what one can see in a smile. Giovanni could have sworn he saw forever in Sarah’s sweet, shy smile.