Chapter 1 CHAPTER 1
“Do you know what this means, Massimo?”
I turned my head toward the window, looking at the cloudless sky, and then fixed the man with a stare.
“I’ll take over that company whether the Manentes like it or not.”
I stood up, and Mario and Domenico slowly followed suit, assuming their places behind me. The meeting had been pleasant enough, but it was getting decidedly too long. I shook hands with the men gathered in the room and headed to the door.
“It will be better for everyone this way.” I lifted my hand, index finger outstretched. “You’ll thank me for it later.”
I took my jacket off and undid another button of my black shirt. I was sitting in the back seat of the car, savoring the silence and the coolness of the conditioned air.
“Home,” I growled at the driver, scrolling through the messages on my mobile.
Most were business related, but one was from Anna. It read, I’m wet, I need to be punished. My penis stirred in my pants. I sighed, grabbing it through the fabric and squeezing hard. Oh yes, my girl always knew my moods.
She knew the meeting wouldn’t be enjoyable, and that it would only make me weary. She also knew how I liked to unwind. Be ready at eight, I replied, and sat back comfortably, observing the world outside the window as it whizzed by. I closed my eyes.
There she was again. My cock instantly grew hard as steel. God, I’ll go crazy if I don’t find her. It had been five years since the accident. Five long years since the—how did the doctor put it?—the miracle of death and resurrection. Five years of dreaming about a woman I had never seen in real life. I had met her in my comatose visions. I could almost smell her hair, feel the smoothness of her skin—I could almost feel it. Each time I made love to Anna or any other woman, I made love to her. I named her my Mistress. She was my curse, my obsession, and apparently—my salvation.
The car stopped. I grabbed my jacket and stepped out. Domenico, Mario, and the other guys I’d taken with me were already waiting on the tarmac. Maybe I’d overdone it, but sometimes you just need a show of force to catch your enemy off guard.
I greeted the pilot as I entered the plane and sat down in the soft seat. A flight attendant passed me a glass of whisky with a single ice cube. I glanced at her. She knew my tastes. I sent her a blank look, while she blushed and smiled flirtatiously. Why not? I thought, and pushed myself up in a fluid motion.
I seized the surprised woman by the hand and pulled her with me toward the private part of the jet.
“Take off!” I called to the pilot, and closed the door, locking the girl and myself in.
I shot out an arm, clasping my hand over her neck and pushing her against the wall. I fixed her with a gaze. She was terrified. I closed the distance between us, allowed our mouths to touch, and bit her lower lip. She moaned. Her arms hung limply along her body and she stared straight into my eyes. I seized her by the hair and pulled, tilting her head back. Her eyes closed and she moaned again. Such a beauty, so girlish. I required all my employees to be aesthetically pleasing. I liked my things pretty.
“Kneel,” I growled, pushing her down. She did as she was ordered without hesitation. I purred, praising her submissiveness, and trailed a thumb along her lips. They parted obediently.
I had never even talked to this girl before, but she immediately knew what she was supposed to do. I gently pushed her head against the wall and unzipped my pants. The flight attendant swallowed loudly, her enormous eyes still fastened on mine.
“Keep your eyes closed,” I said gently, my thumb moving across her eyelids. “You’ll only open them when I tell you.”
My cock sprang from my pants, rock-hard, almost painfully stiff. It rested on the girl’s lips, and she obediently opened her mouth. Wide.
You don’t have any idea what’s coming, darling, I thought, and pushed my prick all the way in, holding her head so she couldn’t move. I felt her choking, and thrust even deeper. Oh yes, I loved it when their eyes snapped wide open in terror, as if they really thought they’d suffocate. I withdrew. Slowly. Then I stroked her cheek in a tender, delicate gesture. I observed her calming down, licking her lips clean of the thick spittle that came deep from her throat.
“I’ll fuck your mouth,” I said. She was trembling. “May I?”
My face expressed nothing—no smile, no emotion. For a moment, the girl stared at me with those huge eyes, finally nodding her consent.
“Thank you,” I breathed, caressing her cheeks with both hands. I leaned her head further back against the wall and slid myself along her tongue all the way to her throat. She clasped her lips around my cock. Oh yes! My hips began to thrust, hard. I could feel her fighting for a breath, so I gripped her harder. That’s it! Her nails bit painfully into my thighs. At first she tried to push me away, then to simply hurt me, scratching my skin. I liked it. I liked it when they fought when they were helpless against my strength. I closed my eyes and saw my Mistress kneeling in front of me, her jet-black eyes piercing me like daggers.
She loved it when I took her like that. I clenched my hands on her hair even harder, seeing the lust in her stare. I couldn’t last any longer. Two more hard strokes and I froze, while my jizz spurted out from my shaft, filling the girl’s throat, choking her. I opened my eyes and looked at her smeared makeup. I withdrew a fraction, making some space.
“Swallow,” I growled, pulling her hair once more.
Tears rolled down her cheeks, but she complied. I pulled my cock out of her mouth and she collapsed back on her heels, sliding down the wall.
“Now lick it.” The girl froze. “Lick it clean.”
I propped my arms against the wall in front of me and glared at her menacingly. She hoisted herself up again and grabbed my manhood in one slender hand, starting to lick off the remains of my seed. I smiled faintly, watching as she did her best. When I decided it was enough, I pulled away and zipped my pants.
“Thank you.” I offered her a steadying hand as she pushed herself up, stood next to me on slightly shaky legs. “The bathroom is there,” I said, pointing her in the right direction, despite the fact that she must have known the plane intimately. She nodded and headed toward the door.
I returned to my companions and sat, taking a sip of the exquisite liquor, though its temperature had ceased to be perfect sometime before. Mario put down his newspaper and sent me a look.
“Back in your father’s day, they’d shoot us all dead.”
I sighed, rolling my eyes, and clinked the glass against the tabletop with irritation.
“Back in my father’s day we used to bootleg booze and drugs instead of running the biggest companies in Europe.” I leaned back in the chair, pinning my consigliere with an angry stare. “I am the head of the Torricelli family and I got where I am by no quirk of fate. It was my father’s decision. I have been brought up prepared to lead the family and bring it into a new era.” I sighed again, relaxing a little when the flight attendant flitted silently to the front of the plane. “Mario,” I said. “I know you used to like shooting.” The older man, my adviser, allowed himself a slight smile.
“We’ll have an opportunity for that soon enough.” I sent him a grave look. “Domenico.” I turned to my brother, who was stealing glances at me the whole time. “Tell your men to start looking for that whoreson Alfredo.” My eyes traced back to Mario. “You want a shootout? You’ll get one.”
I took another sip of the whisky.
The sun over Sicily was setting when we landed in Catania. I put my jacket on and we exited the plane, then headed out toward the terminal entrance. I pulled out my sunglasses, feeling a blast of the scorching-hot air on my skin. Mount Etna loomed over the horizon—perfectly visible today.
The tourists should be happy, I thought, entering the air-conditioned building.
“The guys from Aruba want to meet with you over that issue we talked about earlier,” Domenico said, walking by my side. “We have to take care of the Palermo clubs, too.”
I listened to him intently, silently making a list of things that still needed tending to. Suddenly, it was like everything became dark, even though my eyes were wide open. I saw her. I blinked frantically. I’d only ever seen my Mistress when I wanted to. My eyes widened, but she was already gone. Was my condition deteriorating? Were the hallucinations growing stronger? I needed to go back to that idiot doctor to get examined. Later. For now, I had to get things done. Like find the cocaine dealer who had mysteriously disappeared. Well, not “disappeared” per se, but the term was the closest one that fit the situation. We were approaching the car when I saw her again. Fucking hell, but that’s impossible! I stepped into the parked car and nearly pulled Domenico inside when he opened the other door.
“It’s her,” I whispered, my throat constricting. I pointed at a girl marching down a walkway, away from us. “It’s the girl.”
My head was spinning. I couldn’t believe my eyes. Or maybe I was just seeing things. Losing my mind. The car started.
“Slow down,” my younger brother said as we were closing in on the girl. “Holy shit,” he breathed as we caught up with her.
My heart skipped a beat. Her head turned; she was looking straight at me, not seeing me through the reflective window. Her eyes, nose, her lips… It was her—just like I’d dreamed. I reached for the handle, but Domenico stopped me.
A muscular bald man was calling over to my Mistress, and she turned and started walking his way.
“Not now, Massimo.”
I sat there, paralyzed. She was right there! She was real! I could have her, touch her. Take her with me and spend the rest of my life with her.
“What the fuck are you doing?” I shouted.
“She’s with others. We don’t know who they are.”
The car accelerated and I could do nothing but stare at the fading silhouette of my Mistress.
“I’m sending people after her right now. You’ll know who she is before we reach home. Massimo!” Domenico was saying, raising his voice. I didn’t react. “You’ve waited so long—you can wait a couple hours more.”
I pinned him with a gaze so furious and hateful he shrunk away. I could have killed him right there. The quickly diminishing rational part of my brain knew he was right, but the rest—the prevalent part—didn’t want to listen to a word he said.
“You have one hour,” I growled, staring dumbly at the seat in front of me. “You have sixty fucking minutes to tell me who she is.”
We parked at the driveway and stepped out. Domenico’s men immediately walked over, handing him an envelope. He passed it to me, and I headed toward the library without another word. I needed to be alone so I could wrap my head around all this.
I sat behind my desk and tore off the upper side of the envelope, my hands suddenly shaky. I spilled its contents to the desktop.
“Motherfucker!” I clutched my head in disbelief as the photos—no more paintings ordered from various artists—finally revealed the face of my Mistress. She had a name, a past. And a future she had no idea about. I heard someone knocking on the door. “Not now!” I yelled, not removing my eyes from the photos and notes. “Laura Biel,” I whispered, touching her face on the glossy paper.
After about thirty minutes of analyzing all the new information, I got up from my desk and sat down in an armchair and froze, staring at the wall.
“Can I?” Domenico asked, peeking through a crack in the door. I didn’t react, so he entered and sat in the other chair.
“We’ll bring her here,” I said numbly, not looking at him. He stayed locked in place, nodding his head slowly.
“But… how are you going to do that?” He sent me a disbelieving look, as if I were an idiot. Irritating little prick.
“You’ll go to her hotel and tell her you used to have these visions back when you nearly died and that’s where you saw her…” Domenico trailed off, looking at the note lying on the table in front of me.
Yes, I added in my head. Laura Biel, you are mine now.
“I’ll kidnap her,” I said. There was no hesitation in my voice. “Send people to the apartment of that—” I broke off, searching for the name of the bald guy in my notes. “Martin. They are to find out who he is.”
“Maybe I should ask Carlo? He’s right there,” Domenico said.
“Good. Tell his men to get everything on the man. I need to find a way to bring her here as soon as possible.”
“You don’t have to look far, you know.” I shot a glance at the door, from behind which a woman’s voice had sounded. Domenico looked, too.
“I’m right here.” Anna, all smiles, was walking my way in sky-high heels.
Fuck, I swore silently. I had completely forgotten about her.
“Well… I’ll leave you two.” Domenico grinned stupidly, pushed himself up, and headed to the door. “I’ll take care of that thing, and we’ll finish our business tomorrow,” he said.
The blonde approached me. With one of her long, slender legs, she delicately spread my own. Her scent was intoxicating, as always. A mix of sex and power. She drew up her revealing black silk cocktail dress and sat astride me, pushing her tongue into my mouth.
“Hit me,” she pleaded, biting my lip, rubbing her clit on the zipper of my pants. “Hard!”
She licked and bit my ear, and all I could do was stare at the photos scattered on the table. I pulled off my tie, which I had loosened earlier, and got up, pushing Anna down to the floor. I turned her around and blindfolded her with the tie. She smiled, her tongue tracing a line over her lower lip. She found the table with an outstretched arm, stood up, legs spread wide, and bent over the oak slab. She was wearing nothing under that dress. I walked over to her and smacked her on the ass. Hard. She yelped, head turning to the side, opening her mouth wide. The sight of the photos spread over the table and the thought that my Mistress was so close immediately made my dick hard as steel.
“Oh yes,” I purred, gently rubbing her wet snatch, keeping my eyes on the pictures of Laura. I grabbed her by the neck, lifting her for an instant and removing all the papers she had lain over. I let her lie over the desktop again, lifting her arms above her head. Then I arranged the photos so they all faced me. To possess the woman from those pictures… There was nothing I wanted more.
I was ready to come at once. I pulled my pants down quickly and slid two fingers into Anna. She moaned, squirming under my touch. Her pussy was wet and hot and so tight. My fingers started to circle her clit and she grabbed the edge of the table harder.
My left hand shot out to grab her by the neck, and my right smacked her on the ass cheek. I felt an inexplicable relief. I shot another glance at one of the photos and slapped her again, even harder. She screamed, but I hit her again and again, as if it could really change her into Laura. Her ass was purpling. I bent over and licked it. It was hot and pulsating. I spread her ass cheeks and began trailing my tongue around her sweet hole, visualizing my Mistress all the time.
“Yes,” she moaned softly.
I need to have her. Laura. I need her to be mine, I thought, straightening and impaling Anna with my throbbing cock. She bent her back into an arch and then lowered herself to the wooden table, now wet with sweat. I fucked her hard, keeping my gaze fixed on Laura. It won’t be long now. Soon, those black eyes will look at me as she kneels before me.
“You bitch!” I clenched my teeth, feeling Anna’s body go rigid.
I pushed myself inside her hard and aggressive, heedless of the orgasmic waves rippling all over her body. I didn’t care. Laura’s eyes made me want more, but at the same time I couldn’t last any longer. I needed to feel more. Experience everything fully. I slid my cock out of her pussy and slammed it into her tight ass. I heard her scream wildly in pain and ecstasy and felt her tighten around me. My prick exploded with cum, but the only thing I could see was my Mistress.
Eight Hours Earlier
The sound of the alarm clock pierced my brain.
“Get up, honey. It’s nine already. We have to be at the airport in an hour. Our Sicilian vacation awaits. Wakey, wakey!” Martin stood at the bedroom door, sporting a wide grin.
I opened my eyes slowly, reluctantly. It’s the middle of the night for me, for God’s sake. What a barbaric idea to fly at this time, I thought. Since I’d left work a few weeks ago, time of day stopped making any sense. I would go to sleep too late, wake up too late, and the worst of it was that I didn’t have to do anything. I could do what I wanted. I’d spent too much time in the quagmire of the hotel business, and when I had finally gotten my dream position as a sales manager, I quit. I just lost the passion for my work. I never thought that at the age of twenty-nine I’d feel burned-out, but those were the facts.
Working at the hotel had been satisfying and fulfilling, and it was good for my ego. Every time I negotiated a big contract, I felt the thrill of excitement, and when those negotiations involved competing with more experienced people—adepts at the art of manipulation—I was exhilarated. Especially when I won. Each little victory in my financial battles had given me the feeling of superiority.
It satisfied the vainer side of my character. It might sound stupid, but as a girl from a small Polish town who hadn’t even graduated university, proving my value to everyone around was a priority.
“Laura! You want cocoa or tea with milk?”
“Martin, please! It’s the middle of the night!” I rolled over on the bed and covered my head with a pillow.
Bright August light illuminated the bedroom. Martin never liked darkness, so even our bedroom windows lacked any kind of blinds. He used to say that darkness caused depression. Well, for him to fall into depression was easier than getting a coffee at Starbucks. The windows were all on the eastern wall, so each morning the sun made it pretty much impossible for me to sleep late.
“I made both cocoa and tea.” With a smug expression, Martin remained standing in the doorway, holding a cup in each hand. “It’s scorching hot outside. I bet you want the cold one,” he said, and passed me the cocoa. Then he began pulling the sheets from the bed.
By that time I was getting pissed at him, but I crawled out of my cave. I knew he wouldn’t relent. Martin flashed his teeth in a wide grin. That was so much like him—every morning he had too much energy. He was a heavily built, bull-like man with a bald head perched on top of a wide neck. People called him a muscle head. Aside from the purely physical aspect, he had nothing in common with that kind of man. He was the best human being I’d ever met. He had his own company, and each time he scored a big hit, he’d transfer a large sum to a children’s hospice. He liked to say: “I need to share God’s blessing with others.”
Martin had blue eyes. They were gentle and full of kindness. His nose was large and crooked—it had been broken in the past. Nobody’s perfect, and Martin hadn’t always been this wise and well mannered. What I loved about him the most were his full lips and his spectacular smile that always disarmed me each time I was mad at him.
His enormous arms were covered with tattoos. His entire body was, in fact, aside from his legs. He was a strong man, weighing a good deal more than two hundred pounds. I always felt safe with him, though I have to admit that at five feet five and 110 pounds, I might have looked a bit mismatched with him. My mom had always told me that sports are good, so I trained in whatever took my fancy at any given time, from Nordic walking to karate. I never stuck to any discipline for long, though. What it ultimately boiled down to was that my body was extremely fit, my tummy was hard as rock and perfectly flat, my legs were slim and muscled, and my buttocks toned and curvy. I must have done more than a million squats to achieve that effect.
“All right, I’m getting up,” I mumbled, then drank the delicious now-cold cocoa in one great gulp.
I put the cup down and went into the bathroom. As I stopped by the mirror I realized just how much I needed this vacation. My dark eyes were sad and resigned, and the lack of anything to do had made me apathetic. My chestnut hair flowed around my lean face and fell to my shoulders. That it reached this length was a success—usually I wore my hair a lot shorter. In normal circumstances, I would have thought myself pretty hot, but I didn’t right then. I was overwhelmed with the burden of my own failings and my aversion to work. I had no idea what to do with myself. My professional life had always determined my self-esteem. Without a calling card and a work phone in my purse, I didn’t feel too confident.
I brushed my teeth, put some pins in my hair, applied some mascara, and… that was about it. I didn’t have it in me to do much else. Besides, it would be enough. A while ago I had splurged on permanent brow, eye, and lip makeup out of sheer laziness. It allowed me to have more sleep and limit the morning bathroom routine to the bare minimum.
I went to the closet to get the clothes I had prepared for today. One thing always remained the same for me, irrespective of my moods and all the things I had no power to change—I had to be dressed as perfectly as possible. Wearing the right clothing made me feel better. Obviously, it made me look better, too.
My mother always said that a woman should always be beautiful even if she is hurting. And if my face couldn’t be as attractive as it was on a good day, I had to take everyone’s attention off it. So for the trip I selected light denim shorts, a loose white shirt, and despite the scorching heat outside, a light, gray mélange cotton cardigan. Planes were too cold for me, and even if it meant I’d boil outside first, at least I’d feel comfortable on board. Well, as far as I could, anyway—I was terrified of flying. I slipped my feet into my Isabel Marant wedge-heel gray-white sneakers and I was ready.
I went to the living room, which was connected to the kitchen annex. The apartment had modern decor—cold and minimalist. The walls were covered with black glass, the bar was illuminated with LEDs, and instead of a table like you’d have in a normal home there was a small counter with two leather-covered stools. An enormous gray corner sofa sitting in the middle of the room was a testament to its owner’s size. The bedroom was divided from the living room by a great aquarium. It was clear that a woman hadn’t designed this apartment. It was the perfect fit for a committed single, which the lord and commander of this particular apartment had been until recently.
Martin was sitting with his nose in his laptop as usual. It didn’t matter what he was doing at any given time—working, on a call, or watching a movie—he always kept his laptop close by. It was his best friend and an integral part of who the man was. I hated it with a passion, but it had always been like that, so I really had no right to change it. Even though I had appeared in his life more than a year ago only owing to that little device, it would be hypocrisy if I suddenly wanted it out of his life.
I remember it had been February, and I hadn’t been in a relationship with anyone for more than six months. I was growing bored, or maybe lonely, so I decided to set up a profile on a dating site. It turned out to be fun, not to mention that it ended up boosting my already high self-esteem. During one of those sleepless nights, browsing through hundreds of men, I finally stumbled on Martin. He was looking for a loyal woman to fill his world all at once. Anyway, we clicked and thus a petite girl tamed the tattooed monster. Our relationship wasn’t your run-of-the-mill affair. We were both the strong, dominant types and were prone to explosive outbursts. We were also both intelligent and had significant knowledge of our respective professions. It pulled us both to each other, intriguing and impressing us. The only thing our relationship was lacking was the animal magnetism, the unbridled attraction and passion that had simply never been there. As Martin had once said, he’d already had his share of fucking. I, on the other hand, was a volcano of sexual energy threatening to explode at any time. I had to search for release by masturbating on a daily basis. But still, I felt good at Martin’s side. Safe and calm. It was more important than sex. Or at least that’s what I thought.
“I’m ready, honey. I just have to zip up my travel bag, which is not going to be easy, and we can go.”
With a laugh, Martin pushed himself up, stuffed the laptop into its bag, and headed toward my luggage.
“I think I’ll manage, baby doll,” he said, squeezing my gigantic suitcase. “It’s the same thing all over again, eh? Excess baggage, thirty pairs of shoes and half the closet flying with us while you’re not going to wear more than, like, ten percent of all that.”
I frowned and crossed my arms.
“At least I’ll have choices!” I retorted, putting on my sunglasses.
I always felt apprehensive and anxious in airports, afraid even. I had claustrophobia and hated flying. Besides, I had inherited my mother’s pessimism. It was always doom and gloom for me, so I tended to overthink things that at least theoretically might end up in some kind of trauma. So a flying can with a pair of engines strapped to the sides wasn’t something I’d likely trust without a shadow of a doubt.
We were traveling with Martin’s friends, who were already waiting for us in the brightly lit departures hall. Karolina and Michal had been together for years and had chosen our destination. They were thinking of getting married, but at least for now, thinking about it was enough. He was your typical womanizer. With short blond hair, a deep tan, and blue eyes he was also pretty good-looking. All he was ever interested in was boobs, though. He didn’t even try denying that. She, on the other hand, was a tall, long-legged blonde with a delicate, girlish face. Nothing special at first glance, but when you came to know her, she became remarkably interesting. Karolina all but ignored Michal’s bothersome inclinations. I wasn’t sure how she managed it. With my possessiveness, I wouldn’t be able to stay with a man whose head turned every time he glimpsed another woman. I swallowed two antianxiety pills to be sure I wouldn’t have a full-blown panic attack on the plane.
We were supposed to have a stopover in Rome. An hour’s break and then another hour flying straight to Sicily. Last time I had been to Italy I was sixteen, and since then I didn’t have a high opinion of Italians. They were noisy, intrusive, and didn’t know a word of English. And English was like a native tongue to me. After all those years spent in various hotels, there were times I even thought in English.
When we finally landed in Catania, the sun was already setting. The guy at the car rental office took his bloody time handling customers. We got stuck in the queue for an hour. Martin was hungry and edgy, and his foul mood was rubbing off on me, so I decided to take a look around the place. There wasn’t much to see, truth be told. I exited the air-conditioned building and felt the overwhelming heat. In the distance, I saw the smoking summit of Mount Etna. It was a bit disturbing, really, though I had known the volcano was still active. Walking with my head in the clouds, I didn’t notice the end of the pavement, and before I gathered my wits, an enormous Italian popped out of nowhere and I nearly walked into him. I stopped, dumbfounded, a couple of inches from the man’s back, but he didn’t even flinch, failing to notice I nearly slammed into him. A group of men wearing dark suits were walking out of the airport terminal. The man in front of me looked like he was escorting them. I didn’t wait for them to pass, instead turning on my heel and walking back to the car rental office, praying for the car finally to be ready. When I was close, three black SUVs drove by. The middle one seemed to slow down a bit for an instant, but I couldn’t see anything inside through the darkened windows.
“Laura!” I heard Martin call out, the keys to our car clasped in his hand. “Where the hell are you going? We’re off!”
Hilton Giardini Naxos welcomed us with an enormous vase in the shape of a head, holding a bundle of tall white and pink lilies. The scent of the flowers filled the impressive entrance hall decorated with golden motifs.
“Real ritzy, darling,” I said, turning to Martin with a smile. “A bit Louis XVI. I wonder if there’s a bathtub with lion paws upstairs.”
Everyone burst out laughing. We all had all been thinking the same thing, it seemed. The hotel wasn’t as luxurious as a Hilton should have been. There were a lot of shortcomings I could discern with my professional eye.
“The only things that matter are a good bed, a freezer filled with vodka, and some sunny weather,” Michal said. “I don’t care about anything else.”
“Right, well, I forgot this is going to be just another trip of binge drinking. Now I feel bad for not being an alcoholic like the rest of you,” I replied with a grimace of mock irritation. “I’m hungry. I had my last meal back in Warsaw. Can we get a move on and eat out today? I can already taste that pizza and wine…”
“Spoken like the absolutely-not-alcoholic afficionado of large quantities of wine and champagne,” Martin said with a smirk, wrapping his great arm around my shoulders.
All similarly hungry, we unpacked our things quickly, and after fifteen minutes met in the corridor between our rooms.
With what little time I had, unfortunately I didn’t have the opportunity to adequately prepare myself for going out, but on my way to the room earlier I’d been mentally combing through the contents of my baggage. I wanted something that would end up the least crumpled after the long trip. Finally, I’d picked a long black dress with a metal cross on the back, a pair of black flip-flops, a black leather fringe bag, a gold watch, and large round earrings. I’d hastily applied some eyeliner and mascara, touching up my earlier work, which was already fading after the flight, and then powdered my face lightly. I’d grabbed a tube of golden-speckled lip gloss and drew a line along my lips without looking in the mirror.
Karolina and Michal shot me surprised glances as I left the room. They were still in the same clothes they had had on during the flight.
“How did you manage to change clothes already? You look like you had hours to prepare!” Karolina muttered as we were walking to the elevator.
“Well…” I shrugged. “You’ve got your talent for excessive drinking, but I have a trick or two up my sleeve, too. I prepare in my head, so then I can ready myself in a couple minutes.”
“All right, quit it with the chitchat. Let’s go have a drink!” Martin boomed.
All four of us crossed the hotel lobby to the exit.
Giardini Naxos at night was a beautiful, picturesque place. The narrow, winding streets pulsated with life and music. There were all kinds of people everywhere, from young partygoers to mothers with children. Sicily only woke up after sundown, it seemed. The scorching heat of the day was too much for everyone to go out earlier. We reached the densely populated port district. There were dozens of restaurants, bars, and cafés along the seafront.
“I’m about to die of hunger here,” Karolina said.
“And my blood alcohol content is definitely too low,” added Michal. “Look at this place. It’ll be perfect.”
He pointed to a restaurant by the beach called Tortuga. It was a classy place with glass tables, white chairs and sofas, and candles everywhere. Overhead, enormous sheets of white sailcloth waved and rippled in the wind, making it seem like it was floating. The restaurant was divided into cozy nooks enclosed by heavy wooden beams supporting the cloth roofing. The effect was magical—bright and breezy and simply perfect. The prices were a bit steep, but it was filled with people. Martin waved at a waiter, and with a quick incentive of a few euros, we were sitting comfortably and reading the menu in no time. My dress did nothing to make me blend in with my surroundings. I felt everyone’s eyes on me. With all that white, my black outfit made me stand out like a black beacon.
“I’m feeling watched, but who could have known we’d end up in a big milk jug,” I whispered to Martin with a stupid, apologetic smile.
He took a quizzical look around, leaned in to my ear, and whispered, “You’re paranoid, babe. Besides, you look astonishing. Let them look.”
I scanned the place again. At first glance, nobody was looking my way, but I had this strange feeling of being watched nonetheless. I pushed away the nagging thought of having inherited some kind of mental disease from my mother and focused on the menu. I quickly found my favorite, grilled octopus, and chose a rose Prosecco. The waiter, despite being a Sicilian, was also an Italian, which meant we couldn’t expect anything done fast. We’d have to wait a good long while before he came back to take our order.
“I have to go to the restroom,” I said, my eyes darting around.
There was a small door by the beautiful wooden bar in the corner of the restaurant. I headed that way. I passed through, but it was just the dishwashing room. I turned back, only to hit the stone-hard chest of a tall man. Frowning and rubbing my forehead, I raised my eyes. The man in front of me was handsome. An Italian. Haven’t I seen him somewhere before? His icy stare transfixed me. I couldn’t move as he gazed at me with his black eyes. There was something in him that terrified me. I froze.
“You seem to be lost,” he said in perfect, fluid English with an immaculate British accent. “I can help you if you tell me what you’re looking for.”
He smiled, presenting a set of perfectly straight, white teeth, and placed a hand on my back, between my shoulder blades, touching naked skin. He pushed me gently in the right direction and led me to the door. Feeling his touch made shivers run down my spine. It made walking no easier. I was light-headed, bewildered. I couldn’t speak. The only thing I could do was smile, or rather grimace. I headed back to Martin. With all these emotions running through me, I completely forgot why I had left our table in the first place. As I returned, my friends were already having their drinks—they had managed to down one round already and were just ordering another. I collapsed on the sofa, grabbed my glass of Prosecco, and finished it in one gulp. At the same time, the glass still at my lips, I gestured to the waiter that I needed another one.
Martin shot me an amused glance.
“You boozer!” He laughed. “And you tell me I have a problem with alcohol.”
“I just needed a drink,” I replied, a bit dizzy with the wine I had drunk too quickly.
“That restroom has to be a magical place if that’s the way it worked on you.” Hearing that, I glanced around nervously in search of the tall Italian who had made my legs shake like they had on the day I had first ridden a motorbike after getting my driver’s license.
And he’d be pretty easy to spot in the white interior—just like me, he wore black. Loose black linen trousers, a black shirt with a wooden rosary sticking out from underneath the collar, and black loafers. I might have only glimpsed the man, but I remembered him well.
“Laura!” Michal’s voice pulled me out of my reverie. “Stop staring at people and have a drink!”
I didn’t even notice the second glass of Prosecco arriving at our table. I decided to take my time with it, though I felt the urge to pour it all into my mouth just like the first one. My legs were still shaky. Dinner was served and we devoured it. The octopus was perfect—accompanied only by small, sweet tomatoes. Martin got a gigantic squid, cut into pieces and scattered over his plate with garlic and coriander.
“Holy shit!” Martin exclaimed suddenly, jumping to his feet. “Do you know what time it is? It’s past midnight, so, Laura… ‘Happy birthday to you, happy birthday to you…’?” he sang. Michal and Karolina stood, too, and joined in the merry, loud, and raucous rendition of the birthday song. The other guests were looking at us, intrigued, and then joined as well, singing in Italian. The restaurant reverberated with loud applause, and all I wanted to do was vanish. I hated that stupid tune. I don’t think anybody really like it. Nobody really knows how to behave as everyone is singing it—sing along, clap their hands, smile like an idiot? All options seemed bad, and you are just left the center of attention, looking out of place. With a fake smile plastered to my face, I rose and waved at everyone, bowing and thanking them for their wishes.
“You just had to do this to me, didn’t you?” I growled at Martin, the smile still stretching my lips. “Reminding me of my age isn’t too polite. Besides, did you have to involve everyone?”
“Well, babe, it seems the truth is a hard pill to swallow. But, by way of apology, I’ve ordered your favorite drink.”
The waiter appeared with four tall glasses and a bottle of Moët & Chandon Rosé in a bucket filled with ice.
“Oh, I love it!” I squealed, jumping up and down and clapping my hands like a little girl.
My glee wasn’t unnoticed by the waiter, who opened the bottle and filled our glasses. He then smiled at me widely and put the cooler and the nearly empty bottle on the table as he left.
“Na zdrovye!” called Karolina in Polish, raising her glass. “May you find what you’re looking for, always have what you want, and fulfill all your dreams. Cheers!” We clinked glasses and drank the champagne.
After midnight, the restaurant turned into a club. The colorful lighting drastically changed the atmosphere of the place. The elegant, classy white and sterile interior suddenly exploded with all kinds of gaudy colors. The white was all the more understandable now. With a bit of lighting, you easily could change the character of the room.
I really had to go to the restroom now. This time, however, I decided to find it with some help. The waiter pointed me in the right direction. I elbowed my way through the crowd toward the ladies’ room, when I had that strange feeling of being watched again. I stopped and took a careful look around. On a pedestal, leaning over one of the wooden beams, stood the black-clothed man, pinning me with his icy stare again. He measured me with his eyes, his face showing no emotion. He looked like your typical Italian, though he might have been the least typical man I’d ever seen. His black hair cascaded down his forehead. His jaw was covered with a meticulously trimmed dark stubble. His lips were full and well defined. Perfectly suited to pleasure a woman, I thought. His stare was cold and piercing. It was the stare of a wild animal just waiting to pounce. Seeing him from that distance, I realized just how tall he was. He loomed over the women standing nearby. He must have been at least six three. I don’t know how much time passed with us just staring into each other’s eyes. It might have stopped for all I cared. My bewildered stupor was broken by a man who walked into me on his way somewhere. With all that staring I had grown rigid and numb at the same time, so I just wheeled around on one foot and toppled to the ground.
“You okay?” the Man in Black asked, appearing suddenly at my side. “If not for the fact that I saw it wasn’t you who walked into him this time, I would have thought bumping into people was your way of picking up guys.”
He grabbed me by the elbow and lifted me up effortlessly. He was so strong it seemed like I didn’t weigh a pound. This time I gathered my wits, and the alcohol made me braver.
“I would have thought the problem is that you’re always in my way, pretending to be a wall or a crane,” I retorted, shooting him the coldest stare I could muster.
He withdrew, but kept his eyes focused on me, looking me up and down, as if he couldn’t believe I was real.
“You’ve been watching me the whole evening, haven’t you?” I asked fiercely. I might be paranoid sometimes, but when I have a hunch, it’s rarely wrong.
The man smirked.
“I watch the club,” he replied. “I supervise the staff, check on the guests, and look for women in need of a wall or a crane.”
I found his response amusing and discomfiting in equal parts.
“In that case, thank you for being my crane. Have a good night.” I sent him a provocative gaze and headed toward the restroom. When he stayed behind, I sighed with relief. At least this time I didn’t look like a complete idiot and had been able to speak like a normal person.
“See you around, Laura,” I heard him say.
I spun on my heel, but the Man in Black was nowhere to be seen anymore.
How did he know my name? Had he been eavesdropping on us? No, he couldn’t have. I would have noticed him. Karolina grabbed me by the hand all of a sudden.
“Come on, or you’ll never reach that ladies’ room and we’ll be stuck here forever.”
When we finally returned to our table, there was another bottle of Moët waiting for us.
“Well, well. I see we’re not skimping on the drinks today, darling,” I said with a laugh.
“I thought you ordered it,” Martin replied, visibly surprised. “I already paid, and we wanted to leave.”
I took a look around the club. I knew it wasn’t a mistake. The bottle arrived at that moment on purpose. He was still watching me.
“It’s probably on the house. After your ‘Happy Birthday,’ they couldn’t leave us with nothing,” Karolina said. “But, since it’s already here, drink up!”
I fidgeted on the sofa until the bottle was finished, wondering about who that man dressed in black had been. Why had he looked at me like that? How did he know my name?
We spent the rest of the evening wandering around clubs, only returning to the hotel when the sun was rising.
I woke with a terrible headache. Oh, right… Moët. I adore champagne, but the hangovers it causes are the worst. What normal person binges on champagne? With the last of the strength I could muster, I crawled out of bed and reached the bathroom. I rummaged through my toiletry bag and foundmy painkillers, taking three and returning straight to bed. When I came to a few hours later, Martin was gone, and I could hear the sounds of people lounging in and around the pool. I needed to get up and catch some sun. It was my vacation, after all. Energized with that thought, I took a quick shower, jumped into a bikini, and thirty minutes later was ready for sunbathing.
Michal and Karolina were sprawled on chaise longues by the pool, sipping on ice-cold wine.
“Here. It’s medicine,” Michal said, passing me a plastic cup. “I’m afraid plastic is all they’ve got. Regulations.”
The wine was delicious. Cold and… wet. I downed the glass in one go.
“Have you seen Martin? He wasn’t there when I woke up.”
“He’s working in the lobby. The Internet was too bad in the room,” Karolina explained.
Right—man’s best friend, the laptop. And work was Martin’s favorite lover. I lay down on the chaise and spent the rest of the day alone, with only the constantly smooching couple next to me. Once in a while, Michal would push away from Karolina and exclaim, “Look at those tits!” at passing women.
“Want to grab some lunch?” he asked at one point. “I’ll go fetch Martin. That man can’t enjoy a proper vacation with that laptop of his.”
He got up, put on a T-shirt, and headed to the lobby.
“Sometimes I can’t stand him.” I turned to Karolina and she stared at me, eyes wide. “I’ll never be number one with him. You know, more important than work, friends, or hobbies. Sometimes I think he’s with me just because he’s got nothing better to do. It’s a bit like having a dog—you pet it when you want, play around a little bit, but when you’re bored you just shoo it away. It’s there for you, not the other way around, right? Martin spends more time chatting with his friends on Facebook than with me at home. Not to mention in bed.”
Karolina rolled to the side and propped up on an elbow.
“You know, Laura, relationships are like that sometimes. Passion just vanishes at some point.”
“But after a year and a half? Not even that! Am I that ugly? Is something wrong with me? Is it wrong that I just want to have a good fuck once in a while?”
Karolina jumped to her feet with a laugh and gestured to me to get up.
“You need a drink. Overthinking it won’t change a thing. Just look around! It’s perfect and you’re beautiful and so thin! If not Martin, you’ll find someone else! Come on!”
I threw on a light floral tunic, wrapped my beach scarf into a turban, put on my Ralph Lauren sunglasses, and followed Karolina to the bar in the lobby. My companion went to her room for a while to leave her bag and ask Michal about those lunch plans. Our men weren’t downstairs. I went to the bar and waved at the bartender, asking for two glasses of cold Prosecco. That was just what I needed.
“That’s it?” I heard a man’s voice behind me. “I thought your heart belongs to Moët?”
I turned around and froze. There he was, standing right in front of me. Only he wasn’t the Man in Black anymore. He wore off-white linen pants and a bright shirt. It was the perfect counterpoint to his sun-kissed skin. He pulled his sunglasses lower down his nose and fixed me with that cold stare of his again. He called out to the bartender in Italian. As soon as the mysterious man arrived, the man behind the counter had pointedly ignored everyone else, standing at attention and waiting for my stalker’s order. Hidden behind my sunglasses, I felt especially courageous and gutsy today—furious and hungover.
“Why do I get the feeling you’re following me?” I asked, crossing my arms. He raised his right hand and slowly took my glasses off to see my eyes. It felt like he was taking away my shield. Suddenly I was out in the open.
“It’s not a feeling,” he said, looking me straight in the eyes. “It’s not coincidence, either. Happy twenty-ninth birthday, Laura. May the coming year be the best in your life,” he whispered, and placed a delicate kiss on my cheek.
I was so shocked that I just stood there, dumbfounded and mute. How did he know my age? And how the hell did he find me on the other end of town? The bartender’s voice shook me out of that train of thought. I turned his way. He was just setting a bottle of rose Moët and a small colorful cupcake with a single candle on the counter.
“Goddamn it!” I spun to face the Man in Black, who had vanished in the meantime. Again.
“Well, well,” Karolina said with a smile, approaching the bar. “We were supposed to have a glass of Prosecco and suddenly I find another bottle of champagne waiting for me.”
I shrugged and scanned my surroundings nervously in search of the mysterious man, but he wasn’t there. I pulled out a credit card and offered it to the bartender. In mangled English he refused the payment, assuring me that the tab had already been paid. Karolina graced him with a charming smile, grabbed the cooler with the bottle and cups, and went straight back to the pool. I blew out the candle on the cupcake and followed her.
I was pissed off, to say the least. But also disoriented and intrigued. There were dozens of different scenarios playing out in my head, suggesting different personalities for the mysterious man. The first thing that came to my mind was that he was some kind of pervert. But it didn’t entirely agree with the image of the breathtakingly handsome Italian—he was probably spending more time trying to avoid admirers than actively seeking them out. Judging by his shoes and expensive clothes, he was far from broke. And he had mentioned something about checking up on guests in that club. So my next theory was that he was the manager there. But that wouldn’t explain what he was doing at the hotel. I shook my head, trying to get rid of the nagging thoughts, and reached for a cup. What do I care? I thought, sipping the champagne. It must have been a coincidence after all.
When we finished the bottle, our men arrived, looking happy.
“So how about that lunch?” Martin asked with a satisfied grin.
The champagne I had drunk, today and last evening, made me combative. I was furious about his carefree attitude.
“What the fuck, Martin?” I snapped. “It’s my birthday and you vanish for hours and don’t even care what I’m doing or how I’m feeling and now you just show up and simply ask about lunch? Enough of this! It’s always about you. I always do what you want, and you always tell me what to do. I’m never the most important thing in your life. And lunchtime was hours ago!”
I wrapped my tunic more tightly around me, grabbed my bag, and stormed off to the lobby. I crossed the hall and found myself on the street. My eyes were watering. I put my glasses on and started walking.
The streets of Giardini were lovely. There were trees speckled with flowers growing all along the pavement. The buildings were well cared for and beautiful. Sadly, my state of mind didn’t allow me to really take in the charm of the place. I felt so alone. I realized I was crying. Tears flowing freely down my cheeks, racked with sobs, I nearly ran. Was I running away from something?
The sun was slowly setting, but still I walked. When the first wave of anger abated, I became aware of just how much my feet hurt. My wedge-heeled flip-flops, despite being a work of art, were no shoes for long walks. I noticed a small café in one of the nooks and crannies of the town. It was the perfect place to catch my breath, and I found out one of the items on the menu was sparkling wine. I sat down outside, watching the serene surface of the sea. An old woman brought me a glass of wine and said something in Italian, gently stroking my hand. Jesus, I didn’t even have to understand the words to know what she was talking about—that all men were bastards unworthy of our tears. I sat at the table and stared out at the sea until it grew dark. I wouldn’t have been able to get up after how much I had to drink, but meanwhile I had ordered a quattro formaggi pizza that had turned out to be a better salve for my sadness than the wine. Then I had tiramisu and it was one of the best I had in my entire life. Better than the best champagne.
I felt ready to return and face what I had left by running away. Calmly and slowly, I headed back to the hotel. The winding streets were nearly deserted—they were too far from the main boulevard running along the coast. Two black SUVs passed me by. I had seen cars like those before, back at the airport.
The night was hot, I was drunk, my birthday was ending, and everything felt wrong. I turned when the walkway ended and realized I had no idea where I was. Shit. Me and my sense of direction. I looked around, but the only thing I could see were the lights of approaching cars.