The figure gave a low bow, took her gently by the waist and began to lead them in a waltz.
"Do I know you?" she asked. The stranger gave a small nod.
"Are you going to remain silent?" Again the stranger nodded.
"Then I no longer wish to continue this dance," said Jovanna as she pushed the stranger away. "If you are Pietro I'm not amused."
The stranger pulled her close, allowing her to see the eyes through the holes in the mask. Jovanna looked at the familiar blue eyes and relaxed. Pietro had dull brown eyes; these were a clear blue like the ones she had seen in her dreams. She felt a sudden heat begin to rise between her legs. Was this the person that gave her those exquisite dreams? How was that possible?
Again they danced; it felt as if they were the only two people in the room. The strangers hand against the small of her back sent shivers up her spine. She let out a small gasp.
"I will not let you go again," said the voice in her mind, as if the stranger could read her thoughts. "I have waited too long."
"You are the one that comes to me at night aren't you?" she whispered.
"Yes." She heard the reply in her mind.
Jovanna felt her cheeks start to burn with a mix of embarrassment and arousal. She wanted to tear the mask from the stranger's face and see who her mystery lover was at last.
"This is not the time, nor the place, my Love. You must come to me freely."
"I don't understand... how can I come to you when I don't even know where to find you?"
"I'll find you."
With that, the stranger released their embrace, holding her one hand out as they bent over slightly. Pulling up the edge of their mask the person pressed cool lips onto the top of her hand, sending a shiver through Jovanna's body. Then the mysterious guest touched her lips with a gloved finger, turned away and soon vanished in the crowd of revelers.
"Hello! Anybody home?" Juno's voice broke her reverie and she felt embarrassed.
"I was just trying to think, who could have sent these beautiful flowers."
"I think you know but you don't want to say." he teased.
"They must be from Pietro." said Carlos.
Jovanna rolled her eyes. "No. Pietro only sends the same red roses over and over again. "And I've told him roses are not my favorite flower."
"Roses are a sign of love, which is why he sends them. He is a good man, Jovanna. He'll make a good life for you." Carlos motioned to the servants to serve dinner.
"I don't love him, Father."
"You will love him in time, Jovanna. You're just stubborn."
"Dad, she doesn't love him! Why do you need to keep pushing her?" interrupted Juno.
"Stay out of affairs that don't involve you, Juno. Your sister needs to stop wasting her life with that silly magazine."
"Do we have to have this conversation again, Father? I thought we were going to be able to have a nice dinner and talk about the party - not how you think my life is going to Hell."
Carlos sipped his soup as Juno downed another drink. Juno hated Pietro and would do anything to keep him from becoming part of the family. He knew him to be a devious character who intended to get his hands on not only Jovanna, but the money his father's business would entitle him to when he married Juno's sister.
"So who were dancing with last night, Vanna?"
Jovanna looked up from her soup plate that she was lazily stirring into with her spoon. "Oh, you were able to take your eyes off that virginal fairy woman long enough to spy on me?"
"She was a wood nymph and yes, I saw you. It was the only time you danced. So was it anyone I know?"
"Maybe..." she smiled, as she bit into a small piece of chicken.
"Maybe? You don't know?" he laughed.
"Maybe I know and don't want to tell you."
Juno sat back smiling at her, and his eyes narrowed. She had met someone. He could tell by the way she was acting. "Are you back in high school? Now you'll start signing your articles with a little smiley face."
"Shut up! It was just a dance, that's all; probably someone from your club that you set me up with, who wants free advertising space."
"Speaking of which, I need to send you the new formats. I have some changes. I'm trying to promote local artists."
"Get them to me by the end of the week please? I'm hoping my next interview will up sales. And..." she hesitated for a moment, "I'm interviewing your friend Phoenix tonight."
"Phoenix? How did you manage to talk her into an interview? She doesn't give interviews, in fact she rarely shows up for her own openings!"
Carlos stopped cutting into his steak for a moment. "She's that debatable artist, isn't she? The one who paints that blasphemous trash, if I remember rightly."
"It's not trash, Father. She paints from a contemporary viewpoint creating a mild shock value to raise awareness. Her story is the story everyone wants and I'm going to get it."
"This is big Vanna, really big. Do you realize what this will do for you?" Juno knew that Phoenix would do anything for Jovanna. They had discussed her on many occasions. Juno was the only person aside from her servant Bastien whom she would confide in and could trust. They were best friends and both wanted nothing but the best for Jovanna.
"It's immoral to promote such works. She's an abomination. I don't want my name tied in with hers. Why don't you interview someone respectful like the mayor's wife? She has done good work in helping to beautify the local parks and promote tourism." Carlos huffed as he cut into a rare piece of beef.
Juno laughed. "The mayor's wife is as interesting as reading a repair manual. The local papers can cover that for Christ's sake. Do you know how many people stop in at the club because Phoenix might be there? She's almost a cult figure."
"So you sell a few more magazines. How does that give you any respect? I let your mother write a few articles for the paper just to let her get it out of her system. She knew that her priorities were at home and being here for her family..."
"Mother wrote? You never told me that?"
"You're mother had her little hobby too. She kept little journals and things, nothing important."
Jovanna was bewildered. Her love of writing came from her mother and she never knew until now. "My job is not a hobby! Why do I keep thinking you will understand? You didn't understand her and you don't understand me." Jovanna rose from her chair and threw her napkin on the table.
"Dinner is not finished." said Carlos flatly.
"I have business to take care of. Good night."
Evening at an outdoor café: present day
Phoenix smiled as Jovanna dropped her bag in the chair beside her and bent to kiss Phoenix on each cheek. "Sorry I'm late. I hope I'm not keeping you from anything?"
"Not at all, the night air is refreshing and I needed to get out of the studio. Have you eaten?"
Jovanna brushed a few wisps of hair away from her face. Something that Lucia would have done. Phoenix felt a small stab at her heart. She thought back to the times her fingers twined through the cascade of Lucia's golden curls.
"Yes, thank you. I had a late supper with my father and Juno," she sighed.
Phoenix poured her a glass of wine. "I take it all is not well?"
"You know my father. He's old fashioned and pig headed." She took a sip of her wine. "He still thinks that my magazine is a hobby and that I should marry Pietro."
"That's a horror story in itself," laughed Phoenix. She lit a cigarette, taking a long drag and letting the smoke out slowly.
"Madre di Dio, he's far from being the "Italian Stallion" as the Americans would say."
"Well he does have that mustache that looks as if it should be covering a horse's ass."
Jovanna almost spit out her mouthful of wine. "Bitch," she coughed and then laughed. "You always do that to me!"
Phoenix smiled as she handed her a napkin. "You are your own person. Why do you need to please your father so much?"
Dabbing her mouth with the napkin, Jovanna thought for a moment. "I don't know, I feel it's my duty to be a good daughter, I guess."
"And to honor my mother's memory."
The dark haired woman reached over and placed her hand atop Jovanna's. "You miss her."
Jovanna was surprised at how cold the woman's hand was against her own. She felt an energy flow from her and for a brief moment she felt as if they were somewhere else, in another time and she felt safe.
"Si. I miss her very much, especially during Carnival time. It was her favorite time of the year. I think she loved it more than Christmas. Even as we were hanging up our costumes she was planning ahead for the next season. The masks were handmade and she would go over them before they were packed away, checking to learn if they were in need of repair. I still check them for her not just to see how they are holding up but because she touched them. I feel her in them. It's all I have of her."
"I would love to see them sometime. I collect them, in fact. My collection goes back to the late 1600's."
"That's extraordinary. How did you manage to get them?"
"Family heirlooms." Phoenix took a long drag from her cigarette, exhaling quickly, "My family is originally from Bassano del Grappa. They traveled to Venice as part of a pilgrimage of sorts, just for Carnival. Have you ever been there?"
"No I haven't, but I've wanted to visit. It's uncanny that you should bring that up. My family is from there as well. They left many, many years ago. There was some sort of scandal, so they came to settle in Venice."
"What family doesn't have scandal and a few skeletons in their closets?" Phoenix winked. "Look throughout past history, especially the early Egyptian dynasties. They were fraught with murder, conspiracy, incest and deception. Most family trees were mere saplings."
The blonde laughed as she reached with her hands behind her head to lift her hair off her neck. The light breeze felt good across her skin. She couldn't help but notice Phoenix watching her as if she was far away. The look was tinged with sadness and longing. "And you?" she asked. "What about your family? Are they here in Venice as well?"
"Hmm?" Jovanna's words broke her reverie and she was suddenly aware that she had dropped her guard. "Are you asking me as a reporter?" she poured more wine.
"I'm asking as a friend who wants to know you better. I only know of your artwork and that you frequent my brother's nightclub. I noticed you watching me dance."
"I like the way you dance. Does it bother you that I watch?"
Jovanna felt her face start to redden. "No, not at all."
"You dance with an abandon. I don't mean that in an outrageous sense but it's very sensual and spiritual, intense and liberating."
Vanna took a sip of her wine as she tipped her head to hide her embarrassment. She looked over the rim of her glass before speaking. "Is this your way of avoiding my questions?"
"Was I avoiding the questions? I hadn't noticed," Phoenix smiled. "Typical reporter practice of not letting the subject slip by. You are circular, a never ending cycle of bringing us back to the crux of the matter"
"And you are like a cube; a puzzle box of sorts. If my questions make you uncomfortable please tell me? I would not wish to offend you."
Taking one last drag on her cigarette, Phoenix crushed out its remains while tipping her head somewhat to one side, purposely blowing the smoke away from Jovanna. The slight change in the breeze allowed her to smell the anxiousness the blonde was feeling and she could almost hear the blood flowing through her veins. She licked her lips, feeling the sharp points of her teeth scrape against her tongue. Quickly she reminded herself of where she was and that she must be patient. She had already waited so long, surely a few days would pass by like seconds.
"I've been out of contact with my family for what seems like... generations. I left home at an early age and traveled extensively. I was rebellious and somewhat bohemian."
"That sounds exciting, but a little lonely as well. No one special in your life? Or do you have someone hidden away? I know! It's a sordid affair, which is why we only see you at night!"
The darker woman let out a deep sigh. "Yes you have figured it out. I'm really a vampire and I'm having an affair with the night watchman at your father's palazzo. Juno told on us, didn't he? He is jealous of our love and my affinity for men in uniform, who are over 40 and still live with their mothers."
They both laughed for a moment until there was a comfortable silence. The sounds of the city surrounded them: the laughter of friends, the clinking of glasses and a horn beeping off in the distant streets. But it was the sound of a horse and carriage passing by that stopped Phoenix. In her mind she could once again hear the sound of the horses galloping over the bridge, taking her away from Bassano del grappa for the last time. It was the night after she found out Lucia was dead.
Jovanna noticed the look of anguish in Phoenix's expression, and she needed to touch her. She took Phoenix's hand gently in her own and it wasn't until the darker woman looked into her eyes that there was a kind of recognition. She had seen that look before, but where? Everything was familiar, but also confusing. What was her connection with Phoenix?
"I did have a love once. A long, long time ago. The kind that is timeless and ancient." Phoenix shifted in her chair, "However, unforeseen circumstances kept that from being fulfilled. I moved away and started painting to fill the void. I became a creature of the night."
She gave Jovanna's hand a small squeeze and smiled at her. The life she felt flowing through the woman's body was electrifying. The urge to pull her onto the table and take her right there was overwhelming and she needed to stay focused.
"The night has many stories of its own. Different sounds and smells; so many lives that go unnoticed in the daytime. It has an indescribable beauty. You should stay up late nights and feed your writer's hunger."
Jovanna downed the last of her wine and tipped her head back against her chair. She wished she could see the stars tonight, but they were obscured by the haze of the city lights.
"Writer's hunger... an interesting choice of words, indicative of a passion."
"Do you feel that passion, Jovanna?" asked Phoenix as she studied the blonde woman's features. Her patterns and habits were unmistakably those of Lucia.
"I feel the passion at times, but not the motivation. Maybe I'm just fooling myself into thinking I can be a writer. I publish my scribbling in my slick looking gossip rag-mag where I make already larger than life people appear down to earth and almost humble. These beautiful people reveal their sins to me and I elevate them to a higher level of veneration. It's purely entertainment that puts money in my pocket, but it does not feed my soul. My father is right, it's just a hobby. How can this help me make it as a writer?"
The dark haired woman grabbed the arm of Jovanna's chair and with surprising strength turned the chair to face her. Her eyes narrowed and she began to speak: "You've made it when you're not only published, but when you are read, truly read. Anyone can be published. Anyone can write a book, but not everyone can 'write' a book. Yes, you want them to buy and read your words but when you lay your soul down on paper - that's when you write.
"It's not about making a bestseller list, even though that is a plausible goal. It's writing something that reaches into people so deeply that it's as if you pulled their very words right out of them. You write for you as if it's the blood that flows through your veins and the air that fills your lungs."
Phoenix settled back in her chair and stared hard at Jovanna for a moment. Her own mention of blood threw her slightly off balance.
"Why do people treasure certain books? They quote them, underline in them, share them sometimes. They covet them, devour them and metaphorically speaking, make love to them. How many people have numerous copies of that same cherished book? Dog-eared, beaten up, and barely bound sheets of script that they hold so dearly –they are extensions of their souls stuffed in purses or briefcases, lying on coffee tables or on nightstands. These tomes and their symbols give them unconditional love and comfort, asking for nothing more than to be picked up and read. If you can reach out to just one soul, just one, with your words... then you are a writer."
Jovanna was taken aback for a moment. This woman knew what was deep inside of her. She understood what passion was and how it connected to a deeper part of the soul. "If only you could make my father understand that," Jovanna sighed. "It is one of the reasons I chose to start a magazine. I could still write, but it was also a business, so we compromised. At least in his eyes we did."
"He doesn't understand you, and he never will."
Jovanna traced her finger along the edge of her wine glass as she tried to read the darker woman's expression. "How is it that you do?"
"Good evening Signorina Jovanna," said a male voice.
"Pietro! What are you doing here?"
"Your father said you were here, visiting with a friend."
"I'm conducting an interview. This is business." She turned to Phoenix, "Mi dispiace, I'm sorry. We were discussing passion, yes?"
"I must apologize for my rudeness." Pietro extended his hand to Phoenix. "I am Pietro Genova and this is my friend Angelo Furmante." He nodded to a dodgy looking man in an ill-fitting suit.
"Ciao, Signor Genova." Phoenix took the man's hand and watched his expression over the power of her hand shake. "It's a pleasure to meet you."
Pietro appeared bewildered as he tried to rub and flex his fingers without admitting to the pain. "Allow me to buy you ladies some wine?" He motioned to the waiter, "A bottle of your finest."
"Really Signor, that's not necessary," Phoenix said sweetly. "Besides Signorina Jovanna and I were just on our way to my studio to finish the interview."
"Maybe we should come with you and we can have a little get-together?" asked Pietro. "We'll bring the wine, relax and get to know one another better."
"Pietro, this is business, not pleasure." Jovanna began to rise from her seat and gather up her bag. "If you'll excuse us."
Angelo reached around Phoenix's waist, "I think you and I would get along just fine."
Within seconds, Phoenix had taken the man's wrist and twisted his arm behind his back and pinned his face against the table. "Don't ever touch me, ever!"
Pietro stepped in between them, "Don't be so upset bellisima. Angelo e' arrapato... he's just very excited to be near such a beautiful woman. Isn't that right Angelo?"
"Stronza, cunt," Angelo muttered under his breath. "Si, I was just overcome with such beauty, that is all," he sneered.
"We really need to go now." Jovanna moved away from the table only to have Pietro block her way.
"Jovanna please don't go. I promised your father I would entertain you tonight. We can go to the club if you like?"
"Entertain me? I told him I was doing this interview tonight! Don't you people understand this is my job and not some diversion of a bored little rich girl? My magazine is in circulation worldwide. People want to read what I am writing."
"You are a strong-willed woman Jovanna. I admire that. If you want to keep your little venture going after we are married, I will allow it."
"Che cazzo vuoi, what the fuck do you want? Do you expect me to settle down and have children while I play the role of the good wife? And who said I'm going to marry you anyway? I never agreed to marry you. That is an arrangement you and my father made, not me."
"Your father is a wise man. He knows only a man like me can control a woman like you." Pietro stroked his long curled mustache. "You are not going to get a better offer than what I can give you. Look at you, almost 30 years old with no man in your life. You are probably still untouched. Probably because you hang around women such as this lesbica."