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I knew who he was referring to... the guest of honor, Giovanni Marcello. We found the handsome, dark-haired man in the center of the room, surrounded by several of the company's chief officers, fawning over him, hoping for his signature on the contracts waiting back at the office.
As we approached, the man's husky, deeply accented voice was the only one heard. Even with some stumbling over English, I had to admit it sounded melodic.
"Giovanni," my boss, Bill Weston, said, "I'd like to introduce Joseph Reed, who'll be heading our foreign office."
"Foreign to you, not to me," Giovanni said grandly with an indulgent smile. I immediately didn't like him, whatsoever.
My boss, mindful of the contracts yet to be signed, was quick to agree. "Yes, of course."
"A pleasure to finally meet you," I said as I shook his hand. I was spared one shrewd look before his dark eyes romanced to Melanie, obviously very taken with what he saw. Introductions were in order. I stepped aside to usher Melanie forward. "And this is..."
"The most exquisite woman I have ever set my poor eyes on." The flattering words descended like flower petals floating on the spring breeze as Giovanni eased me out of the way. He took Melanie's hand and pressed his lips lightly to it. "Tell me; what is your name, bella donna?"
Unimpressed, she gave her answer in Italian.
At the sound of his native tongue, Giovanni's eyes lit up. "Ah, but you speak Italian?" His pleasure was unmistakable as he repeated the question again in Italian.
Giovanni immediately launched into a profusion of words that swiftly left me behind, like a man who just missed boarding a plane. Obviously I hadn't learned as much Italian as I originally believed, I thought grudgingly.
Melanie, I observed, held her own during the conversation. There was no indication that she was the least bit confused as the words continued to flow swiftly in her direction. She answered Giovanni's initial questions, made appropriate comments on several things he said and then, ever so politely, pointed out that with the exception of me, the others didn't have a clue what they were talking about.
"Oh, but of course, you are right. Where are my manners?" he apologized, though it was to her rather than the others that he spoke to. "It is just that it is not often I discover angels speaking my native language." His eyes sparkled. "You will be part of the office that we are discussing, yes?"
My boss spoke. "I offered her a position." And if this was what it took to cement negotiations between the two companies, he was willing to put pressure wherever it would do the most good. I resented the implications.
Giovanni looked as if he believed it was a done deal. "You will accept, yes?"
My girlfriend never liked to be backed into a corner, even a lucrative one. She thought of the offer in her purse from Randall, Incorporated.
"I will think about it," she agreed. I didn't know what to think. It sounded like she was the company whore. Jesus Christ! That's exactly what it sounded like.
That didn't sound as if she was going to give him the answer he wanted. Giovanni, seemingly accustomed to getting his way both professionally and privately, moved a little closer. Obviously, business in Italy was a little more unbusinesslike than in America.
"Is there anything I can do to perhaps persuade you? You have but to name it."
"Thank you." Her soft, sultry laughter drifted between them. "You are too kind."
"Eh, kind, yes," he acknowledged. I was ready to hit him, if for no other reason than his disrespect toward me.
Behind them, the musicians began playing and Giovanni recognized an opportunity when he saw one. He took her hand. "You will do me the honor, yes?"
She glanced at me and while I hated myself, I reluctantly agreed before she could. This had never happened before. This made me very uncomfortable and I fisted my hands, really wanting to hit him.
Giovanni swept her into his arms. She smiled up into his face and let the music take them away. I felt like killing them both.
"Great idea, bringing her along," my boss said. "Did you see the way he looked at her?"
"Yes," I replied with as calm a voice as I could. "I did... and I didn't like it one damn bit."
"This should cinch it for us," he continued, ignoring my feelings. "She seems to really have snared him, like a fish." He laughed, somehow thinking the joke was on me and not realizing that I wasn't laughing with him.
I stood it as long as I could, which was a lot longer than I thought I would. All the while, I was talking to myself as if I were my own friend. It was just a childish emotion, that we were all adults... mature adults and could act accordingly.
I was ready to kill the Italian bastard. I had a good idea what acting like a mature adult meant to Giovanni. He was darkly handsome, suave and from what I had heard around the office, the man was born to money. It made for one helluva combination, letting him enjoy the finer things in life without working that hard about it.
I was afraid that Melanie would be under that heading and that she might even like coming under that heading.
I didn't want to chance that.
And so, as my boss stood by, watching in disbelief, I crossed the dance floor and cut in.
Giovanni reluctantly surrendered his oblivion to everything else and said, "But, we have not finished our dance, yet." He gave no indication that he had any intention of releasing Melanie from his arms, a place he obviously though she fit in very nicely. I no longer considered her my girlfriend but didn't like his damn Italian attitude, one damn bit.
"That's the whole point, isn't it?" I asked him.
"There are rules to such things..." he said, still slowly dancing with her.
"There are no rules... now, go sit down," I said, quietly, hatred flashing in my eyes. If we were in an alley, he already would be down, looking for his teeth.
He finally gave in after digesting this information. The smile he gave was waxen and he withdrew.
She slipped easily into my arms and with a contented sigh, rested her head on my chest. Was it my imagination or was her heart beating rapidly? harder?
"Well, that went well," she whispered.
I folded my hand around hers. I could swear I felt her smiling against my chest. At least one of us was amused. I wondered what the penalty for voluntary manslaughter was.
It took me a moment to collect myself. "I don't care if it did or not. He looked as if he was enjoying himself way too much."
She raised her head to look at me... as saw exactly what that Italian lothario had detected. I was jealous... deadly jealous.
"Isn't that the whole point of this party?" she asked, mildly. "To get him to relax, to enjoy himself and sign on the dotted line?"
"Yeah, but..." I stopped, some of my anger dissolving like wet sugar. I looked at the matter from her perspective and began to smile. "I'm behaving stupidly, aren't' I?"
Her eyes shone with amusement and sympathy. I didn't like feeling this way. "Just a little," she said, smiling. "Actually, I find it very sweet."
"I find it annoying." I was disappointed with myself. I looked into her eyes. "Will you take Weston up on his offer?"
"And what offer would that be?" Her face lit up with humor, again. "His eyes were saying things I don't think the rest of him could make delivery on."
I had no doubt that Weston was entertaining thoughts of his own about Melanie. Probably half the men in the room were and it bothered me every time we went somewhere.
"The offer to come to Florence... to work for the company."
"That would put me in contact with Giovanni on a regular basis, wouldn't it?"
"And, me," I said, emphatically. I held her hand tighter, curving my other hand around the one resting on my chest. "And, don't worry; I'll take care of Giovanni."
It seemed like she was going to laugh. "Does that mean if he comes on to me, he'll find himself sleeping with the fishes?"
"I love it when you get physical."
It took all I could do not to caress her face and kiss her face and lose myself in the fragrance that lightly swirled around her. What would it taste like if I kissed her... there?
"Is this a joke, to you?" I asked, softly. Didn't she feel the same way I did?
'You don't have to beat up men if they come on to me. I can handle it myself. I've been doing it for a long time."
"I know," I said, realizing that was the problem. She had become very set in her ways. "Maybe it's time you let someone else do it for you."
She stopped, rigid at attention. I saw that she wouldn't give up control, not even for a little bit, she had been in charge too long... far too long. Letting go was no longer an option.
"I wouldn't know how," she whispered. Looking around, I realized that no one else was dancing. This was going to be embarrassing, dancing when there was no music. She drew back from me. "The music's stopped."
I merely nodded. "So, it has." I was going to say something I knew she wouldn't want to hear. I knew she could see it in my eyes. She wouldn't come with me to Italy. Somehow, she couldn't risk it. I wasn't enough.
"Let's get something to eat, I'm starved," she said, turning on her heel and heading to the buffet line.
I watched her walk away, wondering just what I was going to do. When we had first met, she had done everything possible to be with me... almost as if it were a personal challenge and now... yes, and now... when I finally admitted I was serious about her, she was backing away. Why?
It was as if she had felt safe being herself as long as there was no danger that I would take her up on anything, I thought. It didn't make any sense to me... she hadn't seemed to be a tease... and yet, that was exactly what she seemed to be to anyone watching.
I went over to join her, hoping to get to the bottom of all this before it came to an unsatisfying end for both of us... but as I tried to get to the buffet, I found my path blocked by Giovanni.
I had no desire to speak with him but it looked like I had no choice. For a moment, it seemed like he wanted to assure himself there were no hard feelings, especially if we were going to work together in Rome. He slapped his hand on my shoulder, as if we were friends.
"You know, my friend," he started, "I admire a man who stands up for what is his."
'His'... It had a nice ring to it but it was a false one.
I looked at the man. It would have been easy, I thought, to let him think we were indeed a completely committed couple... that way, there'd be no more trouble coming from the Italian.
Easy, yes... but, dishonest to myself.
"If you're referring to Melanie... she's not mine."
I looked around and saw her at the head of the buffet table, talking to the company's first vice-president. The man was laughing at something she just said. She had a talent for that, I thought, making men feel good around her.
"No?" Giovanni looked surprised. Pleasure began to grow on his face. "But... the way you act, the way your eyes met, I thought that..." He let his voice trail off. When I shook my head, his smile widened. "Ah, then she is fair play?"
"Game... fair game... and... she's not."
"But... oh, I see. You do want her... but, my friend, you are not alone."
It was all I could do not to break his nose, then and there.
"Well, until she makes up her mind, you will not fault me for dancing with her. She is a very desirable woman." He laughed. "If she were mine, I would keep her under lock and key, for my eyes only." His smile mocked me.
"We don't treat our women that way. This is America."
"Yes, I know. It is a pity for you but very fortunate for me." The bastard handed me his champagne glass he had finished with. "I suddenly am very hungry."
I thought about going there myself but realized that was just stupid. Besides, I didn't want to jeopardize my employment until I had something else lined up. No matter how I felt... had felt... I couldn't control what she did or felt.
I went to the bar to get myself a real drink and left Giovanni's empty glass on the bar top.
"The evening went pretty well, don't you think?" Melanie commented as we left the ballroom.
I had my arm lightly against the small of her back and guided her toward the lobby. For some strange reason, I was glad to have her to myself, again. That damned Italian had monopolized her attentions for the rest of the evening.
"From the company's standpoint, I guess. "He'll sign the contracts tomorrow morning."
"And... what about you?"
I shrugged my shoulders. I didn't want to talk about it but since she asked, "I saw something I didn't ever want to see... both in myself and otherwise."
I could tell she knew what I was talking about. Someone else might have caused a scene but what was the point. She made her own choices. Having to guard-dog her for the rest of my life wasn't something I felt like doing.'
"I need to stop by the front desk."
I followed her, not surprised. Although we had left the man not three minutes earlier, any woman would be flattered by Giovanni's attention and he had certainly been attentive to her throughout the evening, so much so that a couple of times, I was sure I was going to break my hand against his face.
The desk clerk looked up as we approached. His smile brightened as Melanie approached. With genuine enthusiasm, he asked, "Is there anything I can help you with?"
"Yes, Giovanni Ferrara's left something for me."
"And your name?"
He looked through his drawer. "Ah, here it is." He pulled out an envelope that obviously held a room card-key.
Standing there, I could only stare at her and for a second, I thought about taking my hands and wrapping them around Giovanni's neck. The bastard...
"He left you the key to his hotel room?" I finally asked.
Melanie turned to me. "Good night, Joey. I'm staying the evening." She leaned up to kiss me goodbye but I moved back.
"Goodbye, Melanie. I hope that you have a good life." I turned and walked away, grateful that I found out early what she was really like. It still hurt, but I could feel the anger, the indignation slowly draining away. I realized she hadn't been there with me; she had never been there with me. I turned once to see her standing there, watching me as I walked away and out of her life.
She was... what she was and I realized I didn't want any of it. I had better things to do with my life than worrying about her.
The loneliest place on earth is in the darkest recesses of your heart. When you wake up in the morning and realize that your life has been a lie and you've no one to blame but yourself for failing to see the signs of her betrayal.
When there's a cancer, you attack it aggressively and cut it out and take enough drugs to make sure it doesn't come back and there was a cancer in my life that needed to be cut away and destroyed.
It's strange, isn't it, when things start, they're new and exciting and full of promise and yet, when the shine has worn off a little and you can see the base metal below the finish, you realize that it was all for nothing.
Two weeks later, I found a much better position with Scranton Phillips at almost twice the salary and two years later I had made my fifth million.
I was reading the Wall Street Journal and was surprised to find that Melanie had been arrested for securities fraud along with Ferrara. I put the paper down and laughed.