Story: Quo Vadis? (chapter 1)

Authors: Crimsonlotus`

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Chapter 1

Title: Quo Vadis?

Author's Note: With heartfelt thanks to KMcDougan and VictoireAuthor's Note:
With heartfelt thanks to KMcDougan and Victoire.

Rome, August 2003

The tarmac was blurred. Ilaria peered out of the window and saw the stern
neo-classical church in Piazza Euclide quiver in front of her eyes. In the
distance, her mother complained, telling her to shut the window as it sapped the
cold from the air conditioner which hummed dutifully in the background. Rome was
intolerable in late summer. Everything died and the great exodus to the seaside
meant that all but the most stalwart of citizens had retreated to sea breezes on
overcrowded beaches.

Ilaria paid the heat and her mother no mind. She declined to go to the family
mountain retreat at Cortina in the far north. There it was cold, so that she
felt more at home, but then her family would be there - more pretext for inane,
pointless conversations. So she stood unflinchingly by the window and watched a
few lonely cars make their way through the oozing heat. It may have been the
most reputable quarter of Rome, inhabited by bankers, lawyers and high
government officials, but in August, even Piazza Euclide died. All that there
was to be seen were dust, sun and asphalt. Everything seemed like a pointless

There was a part of Ilaria that loathed Rome. Perhaps it was because she felt
out of place, even in the city of her birth. She was tall, very fair-skinned and
sculpturally built, yet her features had a Nordic ring to them, so much unlike
the Mediterranean faces that dominated the rest of the city. Northern, too, were
her long, strawberry blonde hair, turquoise blue eyes and reserved, aristocratic
demeanour. But that was the legacy of her mother, who was from near Bergamo in
the cool, misty Lombard plain. This was the same mother who never ceased to
snipe viciously at all that surrounded her, indiscriminately unloading her
frustration at a perpetually absent husband and a vast house whose three
permanently employed Sri Lankan maids needed constant direction.

On paper, that would have meant that Ilaria suffered from lack of attention,
from parental abandonment in the parlance of pompous psychologists. In truth, in
recent times, she had felt very little at all. The school year that was looming
on the horizon would be her last and, subsequently, she would doubtless be sent
to a private university to pursue a business management degree in order to
inherit her father’s machine tools business. Or rather, for her
carefully-selected future husband to seize upon her like a parasite and give the
business the masculine leadership it purportedly deserved.

From her window, however, Ilaria concluded that all talk about the future could
wait. She had been living in a perpetual present to which there was no way out.
Only the deepest contemplation of glittering, solitary cars and cracks in the
asphalt satisfied her. There was truth in light, heat and distant forms that was
easy to understand.

“If you aren’t doing anything productive, perhaps you could go and pick up your
father’s order.” Her mother instructed. It was always ’your father’.

“This isn’t the Coliseum, you ought to knock.” Ilaria retorted dryly as she
turned to face her mother, sliding the vast window to her bedroom shut.

“I said go out and fetch your father’s order at Costantini. He’s entertaining
the Chinamen tonight. He wants to celebrate a big order he received from

“Nanjing,” Ilaria corrected, she had already opened her wardrobe to dress.

“Glad to see you making yourself useful. I am so tired nowadays that it is a
relief to have some help about the house...”

“We have three servants and the cook comes around on weekends,” Ilaria said, her
voice betraying no emotion, so that even when her comment was intended to be
sarcastic, it seemed to be a neutral statement of fact.

“Get dressed. The receipt is in the entrance and take the Smart.” Her mother
looked blank that morning. She was dressed in the latest Cavalli silk shirt, a
long middle aged woman’s skirt and a Tahitian pearl necklace. Her face, however,
was thin, cruel even, and parchment-like from excessive smoking.

“You do know that I’m not allowed to drive yet.”

“Excuses!” Her mother muttered, “Eighteen in February and you have your
provisional license. Your father knows the Chief Superintendent of Police, they
wouldn’t dare give you a ticket.”

“Thought so,” Ilaria replied. Dressing would take a long time. An impeccable
appearance was a surrogate for genuine interests: it gave her something to think
about and do when, in reality, there was nothing much that deserved her

Her mother left, closing the hardwood door soundlessly behind her. Ilaria
dressed almost mechanically. Lacoste polo-shirt, skin-tight blue jeans, black
leather sporting shoes combined with half an hour of meticulous grooming meant
that the finished product that looked back at her in the mirror was flawless:
icy, arrogant, but impeccable. But everything had to be just so: her room was a
Swedish, minimalist white. Only a much-abused copy of To the Lighthouse which
she had sought, quite unsuccessfully, to read in the original English lay next
to a bilingual dictionary. That had been something to do, but there was no more
comfort in Virginia Woolf than in the endless succession of hollow social events
she was often compelled to attend.

She walked down the hallway decorated with paintings from second-rate Baroque
artists and took the creaky old lift downstairs. Everything was falling apart in
Rome: even the buildings of the wealthy had a weathered feel to them, so that
even the most basic of mechanisms struggled to work. Outside, the heat was
sweltering. Ilaria winced at the sensation of sweat against her skin. It was not
something she was accustomed to. When she went to exercise, she inevitably swam.
The pool gave the illusion of something comforting and maternal, like being in
the womb, so she gave herself two hours five times a week - just to move through
water with a void in her mind. Heat jerked her back to the generally dispiriting
reality of a dead-summer Roman day.

Her burgundy Smart car was parked in front of the Neoclassical church, right
beneath an imposing marble pillar. Although it was technically illegal for her
to drive, law was only respected in Rome insofar as officials could enforce.
Even then, they were normally more interested in their football team's progress
or the quality of the local bar's cappuccino than anything else. So it was with
no worry at all that Ilaria started the engine and gratefully turned on the air
conditioning. It felt cold - but she preferred it that way. Heat depressed the
mind, at least in the cold, one could meditate.

She bypassed the green, shady boulevards of the Parioli district and drove
almost mindlessly to the centre, thinking of nothing in particular. As she made
her way up the Tiber's riverbank road, she recalled a short story she had once
read. It was by a famous social-realist contemporary author, A. Moravia, who
described the curious incident of a factory worker who flees a domestic
altercation in the middle of summer, only to find himself confronted by the
mirage of a woman and child in an empty lot who, ultimately, turn out to have
died long ago. Not quite a ghost story, but a little too close to the bone,
since Roman summers confused the mind as well as the sight.

Costantini was a wine merchant, perhaps the finest in Rome, residing in Piazza
Cavour beneath the bronze statue of the eminent statesman. The fine marbled
facade of the old Palace of Justice peered forth onto the deserted square. A few
youths milled about the grand old cinema, waiting for the matinee to begin.

Only mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the midday sun, Ilaria thought wryly. She
parked in front of the wine merchant's amidst a row of moped scooters and
motorcycles. That was the advantage of the compact Smart, it could wend its way
through the demented Roman traffic and the Mediaeval streets of its historic
centre with no trouble at all. Inside, the shop was dark and cool, with a
plethora of bottles arrayed on elegant, but dusty hardwood shelves.

A short, weedy, middle-aged man with a balding head and sunglasses greeted her
by the heavy copper and glass door. It was Costantini himself , as patronising
and wheedling as the day Ilaria had first met him.

"Welcome, Miss, I take it you are here for your father's order," Costantini
began, his voice was always sententious, as if he were a priest reading a

Ilaria nodded and followed the man into the labyrinthine cellars where the walls
disappeared beneath rows and rows of musty bottles. At least it was cool, with
that comforting, stony smell of a well-tended crypt.

"Your father has made a wise choice. The '94 Barolo is really coming into its
own. I would have left it a few more years, but then I prefer to catch wines
just before they decline, in that moment when they're like the Sun at midday."
He ran his hands lovingly across the wooden case where the bottles were nestled
in white paper bearing Costantini's personal mark.

"I don't drink," Ilaria replied coolly. Alcohol, she found, distracted her from
her contemplations.

"You should, Miss, red wine has numerous beneficial properties..."

"Thank you. Would you like me to hand over the receipt?" Ilaria interrupted.

" need," the man replied, adjusting his sunglasses. He seemed irritated
that his lecture had been cut short, "Many thanks and come again...oh, and do
you require a porter to take the bottles..."

"I can manage." With great delicacy, Ilaria closed the display box and cradled
it high and close to her chest. Costantini considered offering his best regards
to Ilaria's father, before realising that they would probably never be conveyed.
So he nodded his farewell and watched her ascend the stairs. Before he had
fallen in love with wine, one look at Ilaria's sublime, athletically rounded
bottom would have been enough to haunt his living dreams. Now those were
occupied by '85 Sassicaia.

Back in the baking, sun-drenched heat, Ilaria eased the case of wine in the
front seat in front of her and switched the air conditioning on again. Relief
flooded her skin - women of her complexion were simply not meant to spend more
than a few minutes under the Mediterranean sun. She began to reverse out of her
parking space, her eyes more focused on the case of wine and its precarious
balance on the seat than what was immediately behind her. It was then that it

She felt something hard and jarring, like metal ripping as she reversed. The
engine struggled a little more, before Ilaria took full stock of what had
happened and quickly switched it off and stepped out of the car, silently
praying that she had not injured the unfortunate driver behind her.

"Cunt!" A richly feminine, but truly furious voice called as soon as Ilaria
shifted her gaze onto the scene behind her.

"Sorry..," was all she could manage. She was not accustomed to that sort of
language and even less when spoken in the guttural Roman accent, in which all
consonants appeared to be rolled and over-emphasised.

"Watch where you're going you crazy bitch, you were about to trash my

Ilaria blinked once to peer through the dusty heat and concentrate on the
speaker. She was a slender, almost thin girl, perhaps a little older than she
was, with straight, shoulder-length charcoal black hair and finely tanned,
classically Southern Italian skin. Despite her rage, there was a fierce beauty
in her features and something riveting in her olive-green eyes. There was
something primordial in that appearance, as old as the Vestal Virgin who had
given birth to Romulus and Remus herself. But there was nothing ancient about
her dress: just a functional T-shirt that left her firm midriff bare, and faded,
low-cut jeans.

"Sorry..," Ilaria repeated, by instinct rather than by conviction, "I can pay
for the damage." She blinked again, her eyes focused on the fine details of the
girl's features, on the irresistibly alluring curve of her breasts that were in
prominence under the blue fabric of the T-shirt; she was not wearing a

"Fuck you," the dark-haired girl snarled, inspecting her battered moped, its
engine still humming wearily under dusty metal.

"Ale!" A short, squat, large breasted young woman with a motorcycling helmet and
a handful of envelopes interjected as she rushed onto the scene. Her feet were
heavy on the boiling asphalt, "Ale," and Ilaria deduced that the taller girl's
name must have been Alessandra, "leave it be. Our next customer is going to kill
us if we're late with the delivery again."

Ilaria continued to stare at Alessandra. Her eyes were fixed, as if riveted,
onto that almost mystical space in front of her, occupied by what looked like
summer mirage. There was an odd, almost sensual moment of stillness, until the
brash, Roman accent and the sound of traffic came crashing through again, "What
the fuck are you looking at?" Alessandra queried aggressively, her lips curled,
almost as if they were to launch into another tirade of insults.

In that moment, Ilaria decided to look up and defiantly meet the girl's gaze
with hers. She was certainly not going to be intimidated by riff-raff from
Rome's dusty, grey suburbs. Alessandra blinked first, despite herself, taken
aback by the oddly self-righteous behaviour of someone who had, after all, just
rammed her scooter. But then again, as she was often fond of saying, Rome was
full of fucking idiots.

"Let's go," the buxom girl ordered, donning her helmet and revving up the
scooter. The machine sputtered in protest. A lone crow cawed from an old palm
tree by the cinema and, as if prompted, Alessandra mounted onto the back of the
scooter and hugged her friend's prominent belly for balance.

"Sorry...," Ilaria repeated plaintively watching the scooter move towards the
long boulevard that led to the marble dome of St Peter's.

"Fuck you...," Alessandra called back, this time with less conviction.

Ilaria watched them leave, her hands clenched into fists and set firmly by her
hips. Her nails had been digging into her palms without her ever noticing it.
Stranger still was her sudden, fervent desire to listen for the humming of the
scooter in the distance, until the sound definitively disappeared and was
swallowed by the rustling of the gentlest breeze as it caressed the fronds of
the palm trees that lined the roadside.

Resolving to forget that surreal encounter, Ilaria reflexively stepped into her
car, turned on the engine and raised the air conditioning to its highest
setting. Her pale skin was beaded with sweat.

Rome, September 2003

Five days back into school and Ilaria had lost herself in the steady, drumming
rhythm of exam preparation for her Secondary School Diploma. She had been sent
to the renowned Istituto Nazareth a stone's throw away from the Vatican Museums.
Although she had badly wanted a bilingual education at the Marymount
International School, her father had vetoed that proposition on the grounds of
cost. Odd, since he had just purchased a new Maserati.

After an unspeakably dreary lesson in Classical Greek, in which, as Ilaria had
nonchalantly confessed, she obtained very good marks "by inertia", she found
herself waiting by the window of the girl's lavatory, waiting for Cristiana to
wash her hands. That had always been the ritual. Cristiana was compulsively
clean and needed to ensure her hands were thoroughly scrubbed under a jet of
improbably hot water. The sun still shone outside, but it was less fierce than
in August.

“Everything all right with Folco?” Cristiana asked, grimacing at the sharp smell
of cheap antiseptic that pervaded the bathroom. She was thin and athletically
built, with tastefully short-cropped blonde hair and sharply pretty features
with an aquiline nose. She always reminded Ilaria of an elegant bird of prey,
albeit one in a white silk shirt with mother-of-pearl buttons and form fitting
navy blue trousers.

“Yes,” Ilaria replied bluntly, staring at the tranquil inner courtyard, with its
chequerboard pattern of white and pink flowerbeds.

“Does he still complain that you won’t put out?”

“No, he’s given up. But I’m still useful to him. For appearance’s sake he likes
the fact that he can call me his girlfriend and, I must confess, vice-versa,

“Coletti-Conti is having another social on the old Appian Way, are you going?”
Cristiana finished washing and turned to face Ilaria. They both had numerous
acquaintances they could call friends, but between them, and them alone, there
was an unspoken understanding. That is because they did not have to rely upon
words to do the communicating for them, everything was deduced from fleeting
gazes, body language, and subtle variations in the tone of voice. These were
bonds of the mind that no degree of socialising could replace.

Ilaria continued to think, so she gave a stock answer, “Yes. Folco will
doubtless take me, though I dread having to refuse a drink every two seconds.”

“I know, I know...,” Cristiana interjected wearily. She knew all of Ilaria’s
complaints by heart, “and you hate the loud music and you hate the dancing. But
at least we should have a few moments to chat.”

“I suppose,” Ilaria stated, her voice neutral, even as her mind mulled over
endless possibilities that had to remain hidden and secret. “But enough about
me. How is it going with Raimondo?”

“Fine,” Cristiana replied, utterly dispassionately.

“Really fine, or just conversation-making fine?”

“Fine.” As always, Cristiana did not have to specify her answer for Ilaria to
decipher it.

“Have you ever thought of trying something different? Maybe then things would
pick up.” Ilaria’s heart raced, but her demeanour remained utterly collected, as
aloof and detached from the mundane reality of existence as the cold marble
seraphs that decorated the school’s private chapel.

Cristiana’s gaze never faltered. She really did look like a falcon, for her
steel-blue eyes were razor-sharp and saw effortlessly through many of the
pretences and cheap materialism that surrounded her. Ilaria only hoped that she
could see through vaguely elliptic comments as well. “Raimondo tried to convince
me to try anal sex. I replied that I was neither a rent boy nor a whore,” she
stated, very carefully, a little ashamed that she had to resort to such trite

Without even flinching, Ilaria nodded in support. It was not the first time they
had flirted with disaster and with the unmentionable, but in each occasion, one
of them always had the composure and sangfroid to ensure that the delicate
balance was never upset. What was known in the soul was so often rejected by the
mind and abhorred by the tongue. “But otherwise, you’re satisfied with him,”
Ilaria managed to conclude as they both exited the lavatory to make their way
downstairs to Latin class.

“Reasonably. But in perspective, there are always more important things to think
about, right?” Cristiana said, an edge of innuendo in her voice; it was a little
apologetic, as if she were telling Ilaria that she sympathised with that vague,
elliptical suggestion which, in reality, made perfect sense to both of them.

Rome, December 2003

Icy rain pattered down on red-tiled roofs and cobblestones which, as an integral
part of Rome’s heritage, could never, by government decree, be replaced by
asphalt. Ilaria was in the historic centre, her long, padded, dark blue coat
tied tightly around her at the waist. Augustus’ Altar of Peace was covered in
scaffolding for renovation work and the Tiber flowed soundlessly under the
arched, white marble bridge that linked the two halves of the city. Christmas
decorations, gaudy with their tasteless red and green glow hung low over the
pedestrian zone. Stern, majestic Renaissance palazzi peered down on the
passer-by, messengers from a bygone age, now wreathed in promotional posters
advertising the latest art exhibits.

She had left her father at Costantini’s for him to stock up for Christmas Eve
and Christmas Day dinner. He would probably spend the best part of two thousand
Euro between the two of them on wine alone. Although Ilaria normally detested
window-shopping - when she wanted something, she stepped in and bought it, end
of story - it was immensely preferable to being stuck in the presence of the
sycophantic, hand-wringing Costantini. The rain was coming down harder now, so
she took refuge under the wide portico of a cafe and carefully unfurled her
umbrella. The air was thick, lightning would probably descend soon.

In the moment when Ilaria raised her umbrella and proceeded to walk out under
the hail of heavy, freezing droplets, she felt something warm and urgent bump
against her.

“Sorry...,” the stranger began and in that moment, Ilaria immediately recognised
that rich, feminine voice marred only by a displeasingly plebeian accent.

“No, please, excuse me,” Ilaria replied, a little bemused. Alessandra was
inappropriately dressed for that time of year. Her jeans-jacket hugged close
over a thick, black, long-sleeved sweatshirt that clearly did little to keep out
the biting wind.

“You again? Just my rotten luck.”

“Your friend late?” Ilaria surprised herself. She normally did not start
conversations unless absolutely necessary, but at least they could both
commiserate over the truly appalling weather.

“She isn’t coming. She phoned my mobile to tell me the scooter broke down, all
your fault, no doubt.” Alessandra snapped, more as a result of her physical
discomfort than from seeing Ilaria again.

“ are you going to take the bus?” Alessandra looked so much out of
place in the winter. That unblemished, iodine-tanned skin called for sun and
salty sea-spray, not bracing gusts that felt like they had been disgorged from
the depths of Siberia’s belly.

“If I had a car, I would take that.” The darker girl’s mind was already mulling
darkly over the veiled snobbery of Ilaria’s question. She only came to the
historic centre for work, but to be compelled to take the bus with all the
elderly and immigrants - for no self-respecting Roman took public transport -
was doubly humiliating.

“Nothing personal. You shouldn’t be so touchy,” Ilaria noted calmly and began to
strike out for the street. Thunder rumbled in the distance and a pall of dark
grey cloud fell over the city.

“Why don’t you try being fucking freezing and tell me how touchy you feel,”
Alessandra growled. She sank down to a squatting position against the cafe’s
wall and hugged her knees miserably.

“You’re right,” Ilaria conceded. “Do you want a hot chocolate?” Her demeanour
remained unfazed, as if she were simply asking a friend whether she could bring
her anything to drink.

Alessandra cocked her head, looking Ilaria over as if she had suddenly gone mad,
“What?” Was all she could manage as she shook her head incredulously.

“I probably owe you something after the accident. I wouldn’t want to remain
indebted to you.” Ilaria allowed herself the thinnest of smiles.

“Then you probably owe me much more than a cup of hot chocolate,” Alessandra

“Let’s start with that.”

Affecting resignation, the darker girl rose to her feet and made a move towards
the brightly lit, overcrowded cafe. The smell of wet dogs and wet umbrella
fabric was overpowering. Most had sought refuge and decided to stay for an
espresso or two.

“Wait, there’s a better place around the corner. It’s specialised, you know,”
Ilaria invited, offering her umbrella.

Wordlessly, Alessandra complied. In her mind, this spoiled, arrogant girl had
simply lost her head - or, at least, that was the way she rationalised it. So
they proceeded in silence down the grey, rain-streaked street, water splashing
under their footsteps and their breath condensing in front of them in long,
white plumes. The cafe that Ilaria had suggested was a new-wave, Slow Food chic
sort of place, with assorted varieties of cocoa sourced from individual
plantations in the most exotic countries one could care to think of. Inside, it
was warm and the entire dining area smelled pleasantly of warm chocolate and
mulled wine. The furnishings were elegantly minimalist: all white leather and
halogen-illuminated display cabinets.

Ilaria immediately sensed Alessandra’s unease at the place. She paid it no mind
and closed her umbrella, slotting it into the apposite copper vase at the cafe’s
entrance. Droplets of rain fell heavily against the window, falling in long,
tear-like trails. Alessandra’s raven-black hair was wet and redolent of smoky
rain and cheap shampoo. Ilaria felt a pang inside her; if she had a towel, she
would be the first to dry it.

“Nice,” Alessandra breathed, standing awkwardly at the entrance.

Ilaria nodded and led her in. They took their seat by the confectionery counter,
where a faint flowery smell filled the air, no doubt from a particularly rare
variety of cocoa bean. The leather seat was soft under Alessandra; she was
unaccustomed to such understated opulence, to the sheer bourgeois pulse of the
place so different from the cigarette-butt and Frascati-wine stinking bars that
dotted the outer reaches of Rome’s suburbs. This time Ilaria smiled more broadly
and unbuttoned her coat. Underneath she wore a pink V-neck cashmere sweater and
lower still a spotless white shirt. Alessandra privately admired her, before
turning to face the confectionery counter as soon as Ilaria took note.

A tall waiter with dark hair and stern, distinguished features approached and
with the utmost courtesy, explained that they had received a new consignment of
single-plantation chocolate from Venezuela. Ilaria smiled and looked up with
affected curiosity, even if the waiter’s boast meant absolute nothing to her,
“Two cups of hot chocolate and some sablé biscuits, please.” She ordered with
amiable detachment.

“Immediately, Madam.” Unlike the patronising Costantini, at least this waiter
had the common decency to call her signora rather than the irksomely chauvinist

“He’s hot,” Alessandra said resolutely, breaking her silence.

Ilaria did not give her the benefit of a reaction and merely replied, “Yes, he
pretty well is.”

“Frankly, though, I don’t know what to tell you,” Alessandra probed. There was
something in Ilaria, something powerfully compelling in her eyes and in the
superficial coldness of her demeanour. Perhaps, chiseling away, something
interesting could be found beneath.

“What do you deliver?” Ilaria shifted and crossed her legs. Her black trousers
emphasised the slender, nymph-like quality of her long thighs.

Alessandra paused, catching the movement of the blonde girl’s legs in the corner
of her eye. “Receipts.”


“Yes, the Guardie di Finanza check up on receipts in places that don’t make them
to sell their stuff cheaper and avoid taxes. So if they’re about to be
inspected, they call a friend who calls us and we deliver a set stock of
receipts which makes it look like they’ve been selling less.”

“Is that actually true?”

“Yeah, it’s true.” Alessandra nodded, her eyes never once shifted from Ilaria’s,
even when she rummaged in the front pocket of her battered jeans jacket and
retrieved a cigarette, “Do you mind?”

“No, but the place is non-smoking.”

“Fuck...,” Alessandra snapped, a little mortified as she scrambled to replace
the offending item, “so what do you do?”


“Bullshit. You go to school, don’t you, an expensive one, too?” Alessandra

“Yes, but that isn’t actually doing anything. It’s parroting stuff back at
professors. I haven’t really done anything since I was born. “

“You’re full of shit,” Alessandra said, a little offended, “you’re full of hot
air and bourgeois shit.” Everything on a silver platter was evidently not good

“Case and point, right?” Ilaria was utterly unflappable.

“Whatever. So, if you don’t do anything and have nothing interesting to say,
what am I doing here?” Alessandra inquired, her impatience betrayed by her
rising voice and increasingly forceful gesticulation.

“So you’re telling me you have never felt empty inside?” The waiter set down
steaming cups of molten chocolate in elegant, faux-ethnic bowls and a small
plate of buttery, yellow biscuits.

“Don’t have that much time to think what I feel inside,” came the distracted
reply, “by the way, this...isn’t hot chocolate.”

“Yes it is,” Ilaria insisted.

“No, it’s black.” Alessandra made a face. The smell was bitter and strong,
absolutely nothing like the creamy, light brown liquid she remembered when she
still drank such things. Nowadays it was mainly beer and cheap wine with canned
fruit in it which was, optimistically, called sangria.

“Try it,” Ilaria said, more as a request than an order. “And sorry if I started
out saying heavy things, tell me about yourself.”

“Why?” Alessandra sniffed. She gingerly lifted the cup and inhaled the bitter,
but heady aroma that emanated from the dark, inscrutable surface of the
chocolate. She took the lightest of sips, the liquid struggling and oozing past
her lips, before flooding her mouth with the taste of cane sugar, spices and an
oddly nutty undertone, like hazelnut spread. It was, for lack of a better word,

“I’m interested.” Ilaria was, almost imperceptibly, playing with a biscuit, her
long, pale fingers rolling against their sandy, sugared surface.

“Why?” This time the question had an entirely different, and more suspicious

“For the same reason you accepted my invitation.” Ilaria remembered that she had
once obtained a brilliant report card when she was in middle school and only
later noticed that under her disciplinary notes, a teacher had scribed in
two-line tall letters a single, eloquent phrase: “too much arrogant, shallow

“All right,” the darker girl relented, “I live in the EUR - you know, the one
with all the Fascist architecture, near the gasworks. I try to avoid my parents,
even though I still live with them. I left school at sixteen and, well, I’m
nineteen now so that’s three years I threw down the toilet. Happy?”

“No. I think it’s been years since I’ve been happy,” Ilaria began tentatively,
slowly, almost inaudibly, biting into a biscuit - warm, rich sweetness filled
her mouth, “but I feel something now, I feel something I don‘t remember feeling
since I was a child.”

“Oh, and why is that?” Alessandra said with bitingly sarcastic curiosity.

“You don’t indulge me. I say nothing important. What I say has been said before,
I’m afraid of silence and I hate noise. I am full of hot air and you tell me,
without any spite, just common sense, that what I think is clever is just
pointless.” Ilaria felt the tightly-coiled knot in her chest finally loosened.
Her lungs were flooded with the warmest, most satisfying sensation of relief
that accompanied the confession that had laired in her mind for years.

“Why are we here?” Alessandra took another sip of her chocolate to hide the
slightly satisfied expression on her face.

“I...,” Ilaria stopped herself from making a pompous remark, “I don’t know. But
I want to talk a little longer. What about you?” Her mobile rang. It was Bach’s
Toccata and Fugue. She lunged, almost angrily, to switch the intrusive item off
- doubtless, it was her father inquiring why she was so late. He could wait.

“Yes, I think I could do that,” Alessandra said with the first fully-fledged
smile Ilaria had seen all evening.

What followed was the single most natural, unforced and transparent conversation
Ilaria had experienced since withdrawing into her coldly apathetic, solipsistic
world. She freely confessed that her only true friend was Cristiana and that all
her other hangers-on were glorified clients, concerned with social appearances
rather than stimulating conversation. She confessed that her relationship with
Folco was, ultimately, meaningless and saw Alessandra nod sympathetically. She
had lost her virginity at thirteen and has since struggled with much undesired
attention. Ilaria, had she been less inhibited, would have laughed and said she
knew why, but under the circumstances, it seemed rude and contrived, so she
smiled and drained the last remnants of her chocolate.

By that time, it had long since gone dark and, most importantly, stopped
raining. Only cars splashing in the distance interrupted the quiet silence of
the cafe, which was winding down as supper time approached.

“I’ll be right back,” Alessandra said, as she rose to make her way to the
lavatory, her lips curled in a spontaneous smile. She wore no lipstick, but
those lush lips needed none. Her gait was beautiful, her jeans seemed moulded
around the curve of her bottom, so that Ilaria, for the briefest of
self-indulgent moments, wanted to know that which was kept so temptingly
cloistered underneath the taut, blue fabric.

The moment Alessandra had sauntered out of sight, Ilaria scanned the table. As
predicted, Alessandra’s mobile phone had been left next to the drained cup of
hot chocolate. She seized the item almost reverently. It was an old model, ugly
and cumbersome, but it felt feather-light in her hands. She scrolled down the
address book and sighed gratefully when she found the entry “Me”. After quickly
transcribing the number onto her own device, she set the phone back into its
original position. Her heart palpitated, almost as if it protested against such
an audacious, barefaced gesture. Ilaria knew herself to be a more cautious
person than that, but it was, in the end, all Alessandra’s fault. She had sent
blood flowing through Ilaria’s veins again.

“It’s late,” Alessandra said, gently interrupting Ilaria’s frantically coiling
thoughts, “Do you want me to pay for...”

“No!” Ilaria said firmly, before realising she had raised her voice far more
than was necessary. “I mean no. Give me a moment and we can leave together.”

When they stepped outside into the cold Roman night, Ilaria sensed Alessandra
shiver and draw her flimsy coat defensively around her. Brightly-lit buses
struggled past deep puddles of muddy water. In the distance, the powerful,
forbidding brick structure of Castel Sant’Angelo loomed, coldly illuminated by

“Do you want me to drive you home?” Ilaria hazarded.

“No, the bus is fine,” Alessandra replied firmly, but gently.

"I...I just realised we've been calling each other 'you' all evening. I'm
Ilaria." She played nervously with the belt buckler of overcoat. Alessandra's
refusal had taken her by surprise - perhaps she had detected that which had
remained unmentionable.

"I figured you'd have a name like that. Alessandra."

"I know."

"Clever girl. Good night then, and thanks for the hot chocolate," Alessandra
said, perhaps a little enigmatically. She whipped around and walked briskly down
to Piazza Cavour where the bus stop lay. Ilaria watched her leave. Even when she
walked, Alessandra seemed to dance. Without looking, Ilaria fumbled in her
overcoat's front pocket for the keys of her car. Her father would be furious,
but she would, as usual, avoid him and ask a maid to bring some dinner to her

Rome, February 2004

It was seven o'clock in the evening and the smell of roast veal and sage
permeated the hallway. It filtered only so far as Ilaria's room, where it was
lost in a sea of sweet, herbal tones from the single candle that burned in the
darkness. Ilaria had locked the door and lay in darkness on her bed, her
undergarments neatly folded up beside her. One hand was between her thighs, the
pads of her fingers pressing down in long, circular motions over her clit. The
palm of her hand was already moist with pearly arousal. Normally, when she was
overcome with need - which was not often - she thought of Cristiana. Recently,
it had been Alessandra. As the rhythm of her fingers built delightful friction
on her stiff little bud, she parted her thighs slightly to giver herself better
access, revelling in the contrast between the soft, dark blonde curls atop her
sex and the slick, yielding inner lips beneath. She squirmed, biting her lip to
prevent herself from crying out as her passion seared down her spine, impelling
her hips to stir and her sex to spasm with the angry fire of frustrated desire
that filled her belly. Her nipples were stiff and felt agonisingly sensitive
against her shirt. Her climax washed over her, and it was as if every single
muscle in her body relaxed simultaneously, flooding her with guilty

When she had recovered her breath, she rose and proceeded into her pristine
white en-suite bathroom to wash her hands. The water echoed dully against the
porcelain washbasin. Her fingers were warm and fragrant with her nectar. How she
wished that it was Alessandra's. It then occurred to her: that this state of
affairs could not endure. It was illogical and it humiliating. What had been, at
the very most, a monthly occurrence had progressively become a weekly exercise.
To be sure, she had admired beauty before, but never had she been seized with
such compelling need - not to possess, but to know and understand. Whatever it
was, however, the unmentionable remained unmentionable because, as her father
often bellowed "this is Rome, not Amsterdam" and her mother would nod wearily in
acknowledgement. It was unmentionable because Folco had given a younger boy a
black eye for calling him a "faggot", and a submissive one to boot.
In the end, Ilaria convinced herself that this was not the ostentatious, vulgar
display of gleeful deviance she saw at the colourful marches her friends often
mocked. This was something superior, the pure and simple appreciation of an
object of desire that had no gender. Alessandra was beautiful in a way that went
beyond crude descriptors of masculinity or femininity. Her beauty was
transcendental, something raw and unforced.

Before she had taken full stock of what she was doing, Ilaria seized her mobile
phone. It was a new one - the latest Nokia - but with her old SIM card. She had
not even dared to write Alessandra's name. All there was was a bare number. So
she scrolled down to it and pressed the call key. Silence followed, with only
the flickering of the scented candle and the intermittent beeping of the phone
to distract Ilaria's senses.

The beeping cut and there was a moment of silence that seemed to drag on into
the cold, foggy night. Ilaria had to stop herself from breathing a sigh of
relief when she heard a tired, almost dejected voice answer, "What took you so

"How do you know it's me?" Ilaria inquired sharply, a little surprised.

"If you usually get people's numbers that way, next time remember to block the
keypad." Alessandra sounded almost depressed, her voice was laced with a languid
sadness that was almost infectiously disheartening.

"Sorry, am I bothering you?" Ilaria said, desperately searching for something to
toy with as she spoke.

"No," Alessandra breathed. Ilaria could hear guttural shouting in the
background: a middle aged man and a younger boy cursing at the top of their

"I wanted to hear from you again," Ilaria said, drawing a deep breath of relief
upon finding a pen on her desk.

"I'm flattered, but I'm not one of those girls who spends hours on the phone
wondering what Benetton is going to crank out for next season's collection."

"Neither am I," Ilaria replied calmly, the pen dancing in her fingers had worked
miracles in restoring her composure. "Are you busy?"


"Do you want to go for a pizza?" Ilaria felt her heart hammering in her chest
again, coupled with a more mellow, pulsing warmth lower down.

"Yeah, sure," came the tired, but decidedly relieved answer, "where?"

"Somewhere nice in the centre, maybe near the Ghetto," Ilaria proposed, before
instinctively adding, "my treat."

“Right, give me an hour or so and I’ll meet you on the Tiber riverbank in front
of the Ghetto.” The shouting in the background had died down, only to be
replaced by the blaring television declaring that Euro-generated inflation was
going to rise exponentially before next summer. The familiar jingle of RAI’s
newscast service followed.

“Are you sure you don’t want me to come and pick you up...”

“No!” Alessandra snapped, her voice crackling across the telephone, “I have a
new scooter. I can meet you there.”

An hour later, Ilaria waited by a decaying, moss-covered wall in front of an
imposing, terracotta-coloured Romanesque church with a majestic bell-tower that
seemed to pierce the bracing night. It was still humid from winter, but at least
the temperatures had risen a little, so that even standing still in the late
evening was not too uncomfortable. Although she had made a conscious effort not
to overdress so as not to make Alessandra uneasy, Ilaria had finally settled on
a light-blue shirt and navy blue, form-fitting trousers. Skirts and high-heels
unnerved her and impaired her driving.

“Am I late?” came the sardonically playful inquiry and Ilaria, quite gracefully,
climbed up a set of cracked marble steps to greet Alessandra.

“No, thanks for coming.” It came naturally to greet her as a friend, with a kiss
on each cheek.

“There’s nothing on Tuesday nights for me to do anyway, we might as well keep
each other company, no?” There was a little nervousness in Alessandra’s voice
that betrayed her awkwardness. She felt in awe of Ilaria’s effortless elegance,
especially when she considered her own faded jeans and form-hugging black nylon

“Of course. Now there’s a place right around the corner where they make a
half-decent pizza - in the Neapolitan style, mind you, with the puffy crust.”

Alessandra smiled, bemused, and followed Ilaria’s lead down ancient cobblestones
and into the sparsely lit, winding narrow alleys of the Ghetto. It had never
occurred to her that there were differing styles of pizza or, indeed, that
differing styles of pizza bore any conversational importance whatsoever.

Inside the restaurant, they were immediately greeted by the warmth of the
wood-fired stone oven, where chefs who were half cooks and half performance
artists rolled out the dough and deftly painted the pale canvas with fragrant
tomato sauce and finally sprinkled the requested garnishing with flawless grace.
The smell of hot oil and baking pizza dough permeated the air. A middle-aged
man, with a ludicrous salt-and-pepper moustache led them to their table, parked
in between a chattering German couple and well-fed elderly Milanese lawyer who
complained to this Roman partners how difficult it had been to secure his latest

Ilaria immediately noticed that Alessandra was somewhat more at ease this time
and her gestures suggested that she was gaining in confidence. Now, Ilaria could
finally admire that timelessly pretty Mediterranean siren laugh, reflexively
flick back her raven-black hair, cross and uncross her legs with the nervous
eagerness of someone on the verge of a great, ambiguous discovery. Yet there
remained some unspoken distance between them. Ilaria scanned the menu thoroughly
and chose only after great deliberation while Alessandra never even opened it,
preferring to spend the time observing the blonde girl’s movements, before, when
prompted, calling for a simple Margherita and a beer.

“Don’t you want to try something else?” Ilaria asked once the waiter had left to
convey their orders to the kitchen, “My treat means my treat.”

Alessandra chuckled, almost bitterly, “It’s not about that. If you were in my
position, you’d understand.”

“Fuck...I just don’t stop embarrassing myself, do I?”

“No, I don’t blame you. I probably understand you less than you understand

“Let’s change that,” Ilaria interrupted abruptly. “Talk to me and I’ll listen.”

“Are you from the North?”

“My mother is...why?”

“That’s us started then. What’s the saddest thing you’ve seen, the thing that
made you most want to cry?” Alessandra pressed, in her amiable, if grating Roman

“I once saw a priest saying Mass in an empty church in Tuscany.”

“Did that make you sad?”

“Yes, it seemed so pointless on the surface, but for that priest it had deep
meaning. So much meaning that he gave his life for an idea that demanded that he
say Mass with no-one to hear. That’s how I began to comfort myself: even if my
life doesn’t look like it has deep meaning, in reality, it probably does. I only
have to have faith in it.” Ilaria paused to take a deep breath and remarked,
with barely concealed pleasure, that Alessandra uncrossed her legs and leaned
forward onto the chequered tablecloth. Ilaria cursed her bourgeois upbringing
for making her notice that Alessandra’s elbows were on the table.

“You’ve travelled, right? I mean, you’ve got money and a nice car, so you’ve
definitely seen Italy, if not the world. How was that for you? Have you ever
been to Bari?” She was genuinely interested. Aside from Cristiana, that, insofar
as Ilaria was concerned, was an absolute first.

“Why Bari?”

“My father always says his family came from Bari, you know in the deep South in
Apulia. We don’t talk much anymore, but whenever they mention Bari on the news,
he says ‘you know, we’re from down there’. I think that’s the only interesting
thing he says.”

“You don’t get along?” Ilaria queried, finding her gaze drawn deep into
Alessandra’s eyes. No, deep was not sufficient, she was simply being absorbed
into that ocean of mystery that was only now being revealed, piecemeal.

“I’m done trying with that. In the end, you find the relationships you need and
dump the ones you don’t. Fuck, it’s stupid being a child all your life and
looking for relationships with your parents when they aren’t interested. You
find other stuff, discover new things, try to find a life of your own...”

“Have you? I mean, found a life of your own.”

“I’m just finding it, a little at a time, maybe, but we’re getting there.”
Alessandra said with a knowing smile. That smile did all the speaking for her.
Her hands now moved with the most enticing grace, seamlessly shifting to
underscore every point she made in a wonderfully expressive dance.

By the time the waiter arrived with their order, a steadfast wall of barriers
had been broken and Ilaria felt something inside her change. She was feeling
something. The emptiness was being displaced and crowded out by the sheer
admiration of beauty, that most profoundly philosophical of exercises which
comes from contemplating the object of such desire that it filled the heart, the
mind and the loins in equal measure. Alessandra smiled throughout the meal,
keenly aware of the cold, yet admiring blue fixed upon her. Ilaria ate with
methodical precision, but that was only sustenance of the flesh. No food would
ever set her heart in motion as much as the most fleeting of Alessandra's

Later, after Ilaria had paid and Alessandra had looked away to hide her
embarrassment, they walked down the cool, damp Tiber riverbank. It was dark,
their trajectory delightfully aimless through deserted city streets that were
silent but for the occasional car sweeping by, headlights piercing the darkness
in a warm, yellow trail. Ilaria normally looked straight through people, but, on
this occasion, her gaze was forced to submit to the elegant, tautly feminine
curves of Alessandra's body, the unforced grace of her movement, the very
occasional contact of her fingers as they breezed past Ilaria's skin whenever a
point needed to emphasised with physical contact.

As they admired the outline of the imposing dome of the Vatican in the distance,
Alessandra spoke with such delicacy that Ilaria was left deeply surprised, "You
like women, don't you?"

Ilaria thanked the powers that be for the darkness that veiled her fierce
blushing, "It's not that simple."

The darker girl nodded, not quite understanding. She did not dare to meet
Ilaria's eyes, but stared out into the distance, leaning forward against the
stone ledge by the riverbank, contemplating the seemingly cavernous city before

"What I mean is," Ilaria continued, hastily swallowing the knot that was forming
in her throat, "what I mean is that I've been unhappy. I have a boyfriend, you
know, but I find his company pleasant rather than romantic. He's amusing, but I
don't feel anything when he speaks to me. Now, and I swear that I know I sound
ridiculous, I feel everything ten times more sharply than I can remember."

"Fuck...Ilaria, what a mess you've dragged me into," Alessandra mused, not at
all angrily.

"I think...I think I need you."

Alessandra nodded and finally turned around and it was too dark to see what was
in her eyes, but Ilaria thought - no, hoped - that she had caught a glimpse of
understanding, "Am I going mad?" she asked softly. "Tell me I'm not going mad
standing here and listening to this."

"You are most certainly not going mad. It is I...I have lost my head," Ilaria
said, almost as a confession. Her breath condensed in front of her. She wanted
to fade into that mist. Instinctively, her hands clenched, nails digging into
the palms of her hand.

"Stay still," Alessandra whispered. Her hands trembled as they cupped Ilaria's
face, smooth fingertips running across her haughty, aristocratic features,
" are beautiful."

Alessandra drew near. Ilaria could feel the warmth of her body, see the sense of
wonder in her eyes. Very gently, as if she were handling a masterpiece,
Alessandra tilted Ilaria's face closer, so for a moment, it was as if that
searing clash of souls that summer had repeated itself, but this time, their
eyes were joined by that unmentionable, yet incomparably sublime need. Ilaria
could neither breathe nor move, she remained rooted to the spot as she felt warm
breath against her lips. A window on her soul opened the instant she felt lips,
so soft, so deliciously soft that they felt like ripe, warm plums against her
mouth. So she yielded and parted her lips and, in one ecstatic moment that would
forever remain fresh in her mind, Alessandra was kissing the sweet life-breath
out of her. There were no words Ilaria could use to describe that sensation to
herself, to say that Alessandra's lips were softer and more loving than a boy's,
to say that her tongue was sweeter, gentler and infinitely more satisfying.
There was no frame of comparison, just a simple, wordless dance and all the
kisses Ilaria had given, so often half-heartedly, in the past were forgotten.

In that moment, she felt in communion, the hot moisture of Alessandra's tongue
like a sweet conqueror ran rampant against its playmate and lavished itself on
the surface of Ilaria's lips. Tentatively, she drew her hands up against
Alessandra's waist, up the firm expanse of her belly to cup her breasts, held
tight under the black pullover. The sensation was more stirring than she had
ever dared imagine, for her hands were suddenly filled with a warm, softly
feminine density. How she would have loved to cradle her head between those
breasts, to be rocked to sleep with the lullaby of Alessandra's heartbeat in her

But desire and affection melded into one, so when Alessandra finally broke the
kiss, her breath ragged, Ilaria seized her with desperate, fervent passion in
the tightest of embraces. Reverently, she covered Alessandra's sweet-smelling,
charcoal-black hair with kisses. She no longer felt the cold.

"I want to see you again," Alessandra whispered, almost inaudibly, her lips
pursed in the lightest of kisses against Ilaria's throat.

"I would die if you didn't."

"Now, though, I think I should go home..."

"Do you want a lift?"

"I came with my scooter, I can't leave it here."

Rome, May 2004

"Folco has been telling his friends that something's not quite right with you,"
Cristiana noted dryly. She sat with well-practiced composure on the brown
leather sofa in Ilaria's richly furnished living room. Privately, she thought
that such an abundance of leather, silverware and hardwood was vulgar, but it
was hardly her place to criticise her host's parents.

"You mean you think something's not quite right lately," Ilaria retorted,
leaning over to pour her friend fragrant coffee from a silver pot.

"I've only noticed you disappear from time to time. Usually you never ignore
calls from me, but last night there was a party at Lucrezia's house and you
couldn't be reached."

"She's a bitch anyway, I thought we agreed on that," Ilaria commented evasively,
taking a seat by Cristiana's side.

"Yes, well, she always has to remind everyone she is the daughter of the
ambassador in San Marino. Can't blame her for wanting to stay in Rome, though,
San Marino is mind-bendingly boring. But this aloofness of yours is pretty damn
arrogant too, even for you."

"Perhaps you think we should be spending more time together," Ilaria probed.

"No, but I'm curious."

"As to what?"

"Who is he?" Cristiana said, a tinge of anxiety in her voice. That she had
overlooked the fact that her best friend had found a sentimental partner was
disappointing enough, but then there was the unmentionable possibility, that
deep-seated fear that she could not even admit to herself, that she may have
missed the bus. But like any good play, such delicate matters were best handled
by understatement.

Ilaria remained silent for a moment, her delicate fingers gently caressing a
silver spoon. In the distance, she could just make out the sound of the
television from the kitchen, "There is no 'he'," she answered curtly.

Cristiana's hand trembled ever so slightly, so that the slightest wave of coffee
overflowed from the porcelain cup and pooled in the saucer. A feeling, like
something leaden in her chest, began to spread through her body, numbing her
mind with a dull, pulsing agony. She swallowed, her mind frantically searching
for words to speak, "I need to go home." There were no words to convey her
disappointment and the tear that had been ripped in her soul.

"I understand," Ilaria breathed, placing a conciliatory hand on Cristiana's
shoulder. She shrugged it off, placed the cup and saucer back onto the coffee
table and left through the kitchen to bid Ilaria's mother farewell.

In the ensuing silence, Ilaria realised two things. First, her sporadic, secret
meetings with Alessandra were draining the life from what little comfort she
could take from her social life, so that her weeks now had one ecstatic evening
in far-flung restaurants to ensure she did not run into anyone amongst six
unbearably tedious ones spent thinking of Alessandra. Second, she could not be
like Cristiana and miss the bus - kisses and soft, loving caresses were all good
and well, but there was so much more that love promised and that still eluded

She returned to her room and, by force of habit, locked the door behind her. Her
mobile phone beckoned from her desk. Her secondary school leaving exams would
begin soon, but she did not care. None of those books had weight comparable to a
single digitally encoded series of numbers in her SIM card. It took three rings
that seemed to resound into infinity before Alessandra picked up the phone.

"Hey, my little treasure, how's it going?" There was warm affection, as always,
in Alessandra's voice, though it seemed to be tinged by something sad and heavy,
that made each of her breaths sound laboured.

"Fine, fine...have you been crying?"

"Yes, but it doesn't matter. The moment I saw your number appear on the display,
I stopped." Alessandra allowed herself a soft laugh.

"I'm sorry, is it something you want to talk about?"

"No, it's life and there isn't much we can do about that, right?"

"Today's you want to go to sea for the weekend?" Ilaria proposed, so
boldly she surprised herself.

"Now you're talking, but where?"

"Porto Santo Stefano, in Tuscany. My family has a house there. It's quiet and
the village hasn't yet filled up - the high season's in August, anyway, I'll
tell my mother I'm going up there to study and get some peace and quiet alone.
What do you say?" Her heart beat frantically, so much that her temples
reverberated with it.

"Cool...we could do that. Say I meet you near Termini station round about five
o'clock, I can park my scooter and we'll go with your car."

"Bring a swimsuit...," Ilaria suggested, a little awkwardly.

"Hmm...Will I need it?" Alessandra replied playfully before hanging up.

When Ilaria finally pulled up in front of the busy side entrance to the vast,
uncompromisingly ugly Termini central train station, the steering wheel felt
slippery in her hands. It was as if every part of her body trembled with
restless anticipation. Alessandra was waiting by the curb, surrounded by a
milling crowd of Japanese tourists with yellow hats to identify them as a part
of a tour group.

They greeted each other with the chaste kiss of friendship to the cheek, still
uncertain and fearful of kissing as they did by night under the condemning glare
of the sun. Alessandra was breathtaking, even if she still clearly felt a little
awkward. But, Ilaria concluded, she would have been breathtaking in anything,
even the tight, succinct red top and faded, but provocatively cut-off jeans she

"You look marvellous," Ilaria said with unabashed admiration. Before her very
eyes she was presented with Alessandra's gloriously bared thighs - tan, firm and

"That's what I love about what we have. You know exactly how to make a girl feel
proud of herself."

"When you say 'what we have', what do you mean?" Ilaria inquired as they drove
down the city centre towards A1 motorway that led north towards Florence.

"It means just that." Alessandra replied enigmatically, relishing the newly
discovered comfort of driving with in-car air conditioning. "Anyway, I like your
dress. I think it's the first time I‘ve see you in one."

"These things make driving hell." Ilaria complained, even if she was flattered.
The pearly white, pleated summer dress had been a gamble, but she found that it
went very well with her complexion and that its neckline did much to emphasise
her well-proportioned breasts.

The cityscape soon gave into an asphalted road surrounded by green and golden
Mediterranean shrubland and, as they progressed out from the motorway exit into
the more pleasant, winding provincial roads that led all the way down to the
sea, everything assumed a more natural, relaxed character. Far from the probing
eyes of Rome, Ilaria felt at peace. In front of her was an ocean of rippling
gold; long wild grass caressed by breezes that announced the presence of the sea
in the distance.

They remained silent throughout much of the journey, so much so that Ilaria was
moved to switch the radio on, all the while dividing her attention between the
open road ahead of her and Alessandra's bare thighs. But, with a knowing smile
and gently firm touch, the darker girl immediately switched the radio back off
again and placed a hand on Ilaria's lap, her fingers caressing the fine fabric
and soft, pale skin she knew hid beneath.

It was almost sunset by the time Ilaria pulled into the garage of her family's
seaside house. The air was rich with salt and the smell of rocks, for there was
no beach there, only a sparse, wonderfully Tuscan outcropping of heavy, porous
boulders. She could feel the residual heat of the sun-kissed day flowing through
the thin soles of her sandals, warming her from the bottom up. She led
Alessandra by the hand, up the steps that brought them to the blue-painted door.
The sea was but

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