Matteo spotted Emily dressed in jeans and blue velvet blazer, parting the flow of business travelers.
For a moment he hesitated, watching her wander towards the luggage carousel. Emily’s dark wavy hair, the way her full lips pursed in seriousness, and that unmistakable strength in her petite frame, were just the same. And though she had become a beautiful young woman, her knowing eyes were less confidant than before.
Matteo smiled at Emily and waved. In seconds, she tripped over the corner of a man’s carry-on.
“Emily!” Matteo sprung forward. He held her arms, helping her to stand. “Stai bene?”
“I’m all right.” Emily said. “It’s good to see you again.”
“It’s good to see you too.” Matteo kissed her cheeks, catching a hint of her strawberry shampoo. “Let’s go find your luggage.”
“Where’s Alina?” Emily asked.
“She’s waiting in the car.”
Excerpt 1 – Dolce – Stai Bene?
by Ellie Bleu
The air was thick and heavy once they left the terminal. Alina stepped out of the car, looking stunning in an oversized sweater and black leggings. Emily immediately fell into Alina’s arms. Matteo stood back, watching Alina comfort Emily in a way only sisters could do.
“I’ve missed you,” Emily whispered through Alina’s hair.
“Emily, are you okay?” Alina asked. “What happened?”
“Nothing,” Emily shrugged her shoulders. “I just wanted to spend some time together.”
“Okay,” Alina said. “We’ll I’m happy you’re here.”
Over the years, Matteo grew to know when Alina was worried. The unmistakable tilt to her head was the first sign. He thought perhaps she was simply concerned about Emily. But as Matteo caught Alina’s tired glance, he pondered if there was something more.
“You didn’t have to come all the way to the airport,” Emily said. “I could have taken the train to Napoli.”
“Actually,” Alina bit down on her lip. “What do you think about going with us to Tuscany?”
“On your tenth anniversary?” Emily smirked. “I’ll be okay in Capri.”
Alina sighed. “I rather you come with us. You just got here, and you had a long flight. I don’t want you taking the train at night.”
“I’m twenty-four, not five Lina.” Emily broke into a smile. “If you already planned a trip, then go. I’ll be fine.”
To Matteo’s dismay, Alina insisted, “By the time you get there, you’ll miss the last ferry to Capri. That means you’d have to stay in a hotel in the city.”
“Amore,” Matteo exhaled. “Emily can manage a few days here on her own.”
Matteo reached into his pocket and took out a folded stack of euros. When he offered the bills to Emily, Alina looked as if she wanted to kill him. Thirty minutes later, and they were all piled into his tiny new car, touring vineyards as far as one could see.
The sun rose as they followed cypress-lined roads to enchanted Tuscan towns. They passed hill after hill of golden fields. All the while, Emily had her head down, texting on her phone.
Alina had little to say during the drive to Florence. In fact, their first real conversation was at an outdoor pizzeria, three hours into the vacation.
Emily briefly glanced at the menu before setting it down. “Can you order a pizza for me?”
“Which one?” Alina asked.
“I don’t know.” Emily stepped away with her phone in hand. “The one with marinara.”
From the corner of his eye, Matteo noticed the troubled way Emily glanced back at him. With her head down, she slipped into the restaurant and disappeared. Matteo pulled out a chair and sat down across from Alina. He reached for her hand and held it in his.
At the table next to them, a woman struggled with her two boys, fighting over an electronic toy. Then a baby in a young man’s arms began to wail. Finally, the man had enough and scolded his sons. Despite the distraction, Matteo couldn’t take his eyes away from his wife.
The truth was, Alina could have chosen any man she wanted. He often questioned why she loved him. After over ten years together, Matteo had noticed his wrinkles stretched further from his eyes. Soon, he’d mistake himself in the mirror for his father. However, Alina became more beautiful with age.
Alina’s eyes met his. “You know, that will be us if we start a family.”
“Think of all the fun we’ll have.”
“And Dolce?” Alina asked. “I won’t have the time to run it.”
“I’ve considered that,” Matteo said. “Maybe it’s time to hire a manager. The café has turned into an established restaurant. We should run it as one.”
Alina’s face reddened. “Are you saying that I’m not running it well?”
“Of course not.” Matteo instantly regretted his words. “Wouldn’t it be nice to take some time away from Dolce? You told me yesterday that you wanted to change the menu a bit; add more vegetarian options. I have relatives in Crete that we could visit. Maybe it could serve as our inspiration.”
Alina gave him a coy smile. “You would agree to that?”
Matteo nodded, pulling her closer to him. “Legend has it that Zeus took Europa to the island of Crete. They made love on the beach, and the gods gave them a son, Minos.”
“Is that what you want,” Alina leaned closer, “a son?”
“Of course,” Matteo kissed her lips. “If we had a daughter, I’d have a heart attack every time she went out.”
They kissed, this time, more passionate than the last. At the sight of the waiter, Alina pushed back.
“I’ve been waiting to do that all day,” Matteo smiled.
“I know the trip hasn’t gone as planned,” Alina sighed. “I feel terrible about it. I didn’t know what to do when Emily called me.”
“Don’t worry.” Matteo squeezed her hand. “We can celebrate our anniversary another time.”
The waiter came over, and Alina ordered a marinara pizza. For a moment, Matteo had forgotten that Emily was still with them. Alina asked about Crete and where they would stay. Matteo told her about his fond memories of Balos Bay. Then Emily’s voice broke in.
“I’m still not getting reception,” Emily huffed.
Emily tossed her cell phone on the table and folded her arms. Matteo ignored her, but Alina seemed to be losing her cool. He reached for a decanter filled with burgundy wine and poured Alina a glass, then reached for Emily’s cup.
“Thank you,” Emily smiled.
“Nice try,” Alina pushed the glass aside, and stood.
Emily glanced up. “I’ll just have half a glass.”
“With your motion sickness?” Alina shook her head. “You’ll get sick in the car.”
Matteo reached for Alina’s hand. “Where are you going?”
“I’ll be right back.” Alina pecked his cheek. “I’m going to see what’s taking so long.”
Emily and Matteo sat in silence until the waiter returned with a pizza high on his shoulder. Matteo’s mouth watered when he caught the aroma. The server set the pizza down before warning that the plate was hot. Emily reached out for a slice and immediately jolted back.
“Let me see,” Matteo said, reaching for her hand.
“It hurts,” Emily said. “I would ask for ice, but your country doesn’t seem to know what it even is.”
Matteo shook his head. “Ice makes a burn worse.”
Matteo dipped her red fingers in a glass of water. For a second, he pondered if Emily would ever grow past her youth.
Matteo had come to believe that Emily lived for the satisfaction of keeping everyone on their toes. In fact, the moment he married Alina, Emily was showing signs of what Alina called “the tween years.”
During their visits to see her in New York, Matteo was shocked at Emily’s ability to argue brilliantly, then in seconds do something childish. As the years progressed, he was constantly struck by the innocence she displayed while hiding her acute intelligence.
It came to no surprise that Emily decided to follow her father’s footsteps and study law. But as Matteo glanced at her puffy eyes, Emily appeared lost and almost afraid.
“Do you feel better?” Matteo asked.
“I’ll survive,” Emily grinned.
Matteo dropped her hand. “Good.”
Emily glanced down at the pizza with a frown. “This isn’t pizza.”
“What do you mean?” Matteo asked, looking down.
The crust formed a traditional cornizone rim, and it had slight tinges of a blackened edge. To Matteo, it was a perfect Neapolitan-style pizza topped with San Marzano tomatoes, garlic, oregano, and fresh olive oil.
“Where are the toppings?” Emily asked.
“You asked for the Marinara.” Matteo took a napkin and folded it around the pizza. “Try a bite.”
Emily reluctantly agreed. With one hand in the water, she grabbed the pizza and ate a small piece.
“What do you taste?” Matteo asked.
Emily shrugged her shoulders. “The dough is good, almost like sourdough bread, but it’s chewy.”
Matteo nodded. “In Italy, we use a tiny amount of yeast in the dough. We let it rise for a few days to allow the flavor to develop.”
“The tomatoes taste stronger, sweeter than the ones we have back home,” Emily said.
Matteo took a sip of wine. “They grow in the volcanic soil of Mount Vesuvius, in a town outside of Napoli where I grew up.”
“It’s good.” Emily took another bite. “With the fresh oregano on top, you don’t even need cheese.”
It surprised him that she even knew the name of the herb. Matteo reached for the decanter and poured Emily a glass of wine.
“Don’t tell your sister. You can’t leave Tuscany without trying Ornellaia.”
Emily grinned as she took a sip. Moments later, Alina returned with a smile on her face. For a brief second, Matteo allowed himself to believe that their vacation would turn out okay.
[end of section]
Thank you for reading!