Differing Views

 

 

Chapter 6

Dinner was a welcomed event after an exhausting day of walking through the streets of Rome and the enchanting gardens of Villa D'Este at Tivoli. The seating arrangements resembled the previous evening's with one exception: Pino and Paola moved to the Pasqua table. They found that fraternizing with countrymen was easier and livelier than with the British or Australians.

This sentiment however, didn't stop from Pino from settling comfortably next to Dinah, the sole Aussie at the table. He had witnessed her flirting with Frederick the other evening and assumed she'd be an easy recipient to his charms. Even though he only knew a few English words, he managed to make himself understood and after supper, the two quietly withdrew from the dining room and headed to his favorite place: the back of the bus.

When they returned to the hall less than an hour later, no one had even noticed their disappearance. Olivia's absence was more prominently heeded. "Where's your sister?" Carly asked.

Maggie sighed heavily. "She's sitting outside with David."

"She's been spending a lot of time with him. Except for that picture with the gladiator, I've barely spoken to her all day."

"You haven't?! What about me? I see her when I wake up in the morning and as soon as we come down for breakfast she's with him," Maggie said with envy. "Thank God for you and Johnny. If it weren't for you guys I'd really feel lonely."

"Well, I can't blame her. David seems like a really nice guy. Too bad Freddie's not that way."

"Don't mention that man's name again," Maggie spit out.

"You're still upset?"

Maggie toyed with the half-uneaten cake in her plate. "Wouldn't you be? I know I'm no Cindy Crawford but I didn't think I was that bad."

"You're very pretty, Maggie," Carly sincerely said, wanting to uplift her friend's spirits. "Don't let what he said get you down. I think he said it in a moment of anger, probably because David was pushing him to do something he didn't want to do, and I think he regrets it."

"Yeah, right."

"Maggie, didn't you notice he was looking at you all day?"

Maggie stopped playing with her cake and looked up at her friend in disbelief. "He was not."

"Yes he was, especially at the Colosseum. He was staring at you. Very intensely, I might add. I think it got Constance's goat too and that's why she provoked you. Freddie really seemed envious when that hunky soldier kissed you while most of us were jealous of you."

Maggie didn't believe Carly's reading on Frederick's emotions. "If he was staring at me, it was probably to find something wrong with me." She resumed making railroad tracks with her fork in the frosting. "I really wish he hadn't have come on this trip. He makes me so angry and so uneasy."

"Consciously you call it uneasiness but subconsciously I think it's attraction."

Maggie clanked her fork on her plate. "Attraction? I am not attracted to Freddie," she said with a nervous laugh. "Why would you think that? Sure he's handsome, but he's also rude, pompous..."

Carly licked some frosting off her finger. "You like him. You've liked him from the moment you laid your baby browns on him."

"I do not," she said with a hint of reservation in her voice. "I've barely spoken two words to the man and what I have wanted to say to him..."

Carly goaded her some more. "So, you have been thinking about him. In-te-res-ting."

"Listen, the only thoughts I've had about Frederick Thornton is about how much I'd like to..."

"Kiss him?"

"No! I want to smack him, he's so arrogant and condescending. Wait a minute. Are we talking about me or you here?"

"Oh, not me darling! He's not the usual kind of guy I go for. You might think this is crazy, but I kind of have a thing for short, pudgy men, like that reverend, Finnegan Tewksbury. Your guy ain't short and he ain't pudgy, that's for sure."

"He's not my guy, Carly."

"Oh, I think he is. When you were singing with Johnny to that Kareoke machine, he was watching you again, very closely."

"Everyone was looking at us. We were singing so terribly, how could he not look?"

"My dear, that was not a look of contempt or repulsion but of desire."

Maggie unequivocally doubted what Carly had said. Frederick had clearly mentioned that he found her repulsive. Feelings like that weren't going to change overnight. "You're losing it, Carly. Either you've read too many romance novels and are seeing what you want to see, or you've had way too much wine tonight. I'm going to the bar to get you a strong cup of coffee. You need something to rouse you from this delusion of yours."

Maggie walked across the dance floor trying to understand how Carly could be so perceptive of her feelings. She didn't think she was so transparent in her attraction to Freddie. She thought she hid it relatively well. Obviously, some work needed to be done on that score. She didn't want anyone to know how she felt about Freddie.

Once she reached the bar, she ordered two espressos when she heard Mr. Pasqua holler her over. "Margherita! Come sit next to me," he said after sipping his glass of Sambuca. She walked over to her friend's father apprehensively after noticing that Freddie was seated on Mr. Pasqua's right.

Begrudgingly, she took the other seat.

"What are you doing drinking coffee?" Mr. Pasqua scolded. "That's for old people. You should be dancing instead of drinking. Why aren't you dancing? You don't like the music?"

Still incensed with Freddie for divulging his true sentiments about her last night, Maggie answered Mr. Pasqua in Italian. She didn't want Freddie to overhear her conversation. "Of course, I like to dance, but nobody asked me."

Mr. Pasqua happily switched to his mother tongue. "Impossible! A beautiful girl like you? Where's my son? He'll dance with you."

"He's dancing with Dinah."

Mr. Pasqua looked over at the dance floor and shuddered. He put his arm around Maggie and whispered, "Between you and me, that girl's a slut. Did you see her skirt? It's so short."

"I know, but what can you do? That's the way she likes to dress."

"I like the way you dress better. You're a respectable girl, like my Carlotta. You don't show everything off. You leave a little mystery, the way a girl should."

"I have no choice, my father would kill me if I wore anything that short."

"And well he should," Mr. Pasqua firmly replied. "Fathers have to protect their daughters from leering men anyway they can. I like your father. He's a good man to set rules for his daughters."

Mr. Pasqua looked around the restaurant scanning for a proper man to dance with Maggie. He felt protective of the girl who had quickly charmed her way into his heart. "Why don't you dance with this Englishman here? He seems nice," he suggested with a glimpse at Freddie.

"Him?" Maggie shrieked. "Never!"

Mr. Pasqua was taken aback by Maggie's adamant stance. "Why not?"

"Because he's an arrogant, rude, obnoxious jerk. I'd rather be fed to a lion than dance with him," Maggie said truthfully, not realizing that Frederick understood every single word she uttered.

"Why? What did he do to you?"

Maggie related her two-day history with Frederick, expressing herself freely about his reproof and his admission about her unattractiveness.

Mr. Pasqua couldn't blame Maggie for not wanting to dance with Frederick. He could see the hurt in her eyes and hear it in her voice. He took her hand in his and squeezed it. "Screw him! The man's an idiot."

She laughed. She liked Mr. Pasqua more and more each day. "My thoughts exactly."

"I'm going to call Johnny over. I don't like that girl he's dancing with. Excuse me."

Maggie thanked Mr. Pasqua before he left and uncomfortably sat in her chair with her back to Freddie. She wasn't about to look over at him while she was waited for her order.

When the bartender requested 10,000 lire, she took a bill out of her pocket and slid it on the counter while aimlessly staring at the dance floor.

She was nervously tapping her fingers to the beat of the music when she felt a large hand cover hers.

"I'll get that," she heard.

Swiftly, she swiveled her stool around. Without having to look, she knew whose fingers were rubbing hers. As soon as his warm, soft hand touched hers, she felt as if a bolt of lightning had just struck her down. She looked at her hand and after a moment's hesitation, briskly tore it away, clutching her money.

She gave him a quizzical look, suspicious of his offer. "No thanks," she answered in a firm voice, staring decisively into his romantic eyes. She paid the bartender and took hold of both cups, wanting to get away from this man who made her stomach tremble and insides tingle every time she was in his presence.

"Would you like to dance, Maggie?" she heard him ask quietly as she was heading for her table. She halted. An irate shiver ran throughout her body. She couldn't believe the impudence of this man. First he yelled at her for listening to a music video too loudly, then he said she was too plain looking, and now, suddenly, he wanted to make amends without even apologizing?

"No. The chicken dance does nothing for me," she sarcastically answered back.

He chuckled. "No, I meant to something else."

"Maggie, you know how to play scopa, right?" Johnny asked, rushing to her side, interrupting her uncomfortable exchange with Freddie.

Maggie had learned to play that Italian card game long before she even learned how to speak. "Yeah, why?"

"Because Pino's the Neapolitan champion and I want to beat him. He's paired up with Carly and I need a partner. My Dad doesn't feel like playing and you're the only other Italian I know, well except for your sister, who I can't find, and Paola who can't play. So please be my partner. If I win, then Pino has to take off those boring Neapolitan arias and play my Ozzy Osborne tape on the coach to Pisa tomorrow." He got on his knees. "Please Maggie, you're my last chance. I can't stand those songs anymore."

Maggie placed the cups back on the counter and looked down at her friend with a huge grin. "Johnny, I hate Ozzy Osborne."

"Oh come on!" he pleaded. "How many people you know would actually beg you for something. I'll buy you all the ice cream you want for the rest of the tour."

"Are you serious? As much as I want?"

"Yes."

It wasn't a tough decision to make. Either play cards with Johnny and get free ice cream for the next two weeks, or speak to Freddie. "Fine," she said pulling him up. "But I'm warning you, I'm not very good at it. Briscola's more my game."

"Yeah, right. That's what you said about the rumba yesterday too. We're going to kick their butts. You watch."

"You're not going to cheat are you? You don't have the seven of diamonds up your sleeve or something?" She lifted his arm and felt for any hidden cards.

"How could you ask me that?" Johnny said with a sly smirk, thankful he had made a last minute switch and placed the card in his sock.

"Because I have a brother too and you are so like him, it's uncanny. Sometimes I think you are him."

"So Pete's a cheat, huh?" Johnny seated himself on the middle stool and started picking at the complementary cashews. "How come he didn't come on the tour? I would've loved to have met him."

"Because he didn't want to see any ‘spitting fountains' as he so eloquently put it. My brother's an idiot. Like most men," Maggie said cheekily, glaring at Frederick.

Frederick smiled back, knowing she was referring to him. He didn't mind her animosity. She was entitled to it. He had been uncivil to her from the get-go and now, he felt sorry for it.

He enjoyed listening to this conversation and learning more about how the direct, dark-haired Fireball thought.

"You know what my Dad just told me, Maggie?" Johnny said, trying to catch a nut in his mouth. "He said you'd make a perfect wife."

Maggie almost spit out her coffee. "What?"

"Yeah. You're Italian, you're pretty, you're smart, you can dance and you can cook."

"How do you know if I can cook?"

"You said you worked at your grandmother's pizzeria. Don't tell me you don't know how to cook?"

Maggie put her cup down and clenched her fists. "You know, all our parents seem to think about is marrying their girls off as soon as they hit twenty. When are they going to realize, this ain't the 50's anymore? Maybe we don't want to be married."

"You sound like Carly. As soon as she hit twenty, wedding bells started ringing in my Mom's ears."

"My mother's the same way," Maggie admitted as she sat down and started chewing on some cashews, momentarily forgetting about Carly's espresso and that Freddie was nearby. "It's all a competition with them. They want to be the first mother on the block whose daughter is married. When the daughter's barely home from her honeymoon, they start pushing for the first grandchild, and when the first one's barely out, they push for the second one. Who needs that pressure? I don't. I want to experience life instead of being tied down to a husband and popping out kids."

"You say that, but I think it depends on your husband. I bet you wouldn't mind being tied down if Bobby De Lorenzo was your husband."

Immediately, Maggie faced Johnny and grabbed him by the collar. "How do you know about him?" she asked defensively.

Johnny lurched back in fright. "Carly told me," he said meekly.

Was nothing safe with Carly? "Jesus! Your sister's a regular Hedda Hopper," Maggie quipped as she let Johnny go and sat back down, staring at her drink.

"Who's Hedda Hopper?"

"She was a Hollywood gossip columnist," Frederick replied while glancing at Maggie who was chewing on her bottom lip, deep in thought.

A full, pouty, succulent lip.

As he watched her hair fall over her face, he wondered who this Bobby fellow was and whether he had kissed that mouth or run his fingers through her dark tresses.

"Sometimes I think that's what Carly should have become, a gossip columnist, instead of a banker. Come on, you can get her back by beating her," Johnny urged.

Irked at Carly for breaking her confidence about Bobby, Maggie crouched to the floor and pulled down Johnny's sock. She snatched the seven of diamond's out, grazing her nail against his shin. "Take it," she said, slamming the card on the counter. "We're going to play dirty."

"How did you know it was there? Johnny asked flabbergasted. Frederick, too, was surprised at how astute this girl was. She was definitely unlike any woman he'd ever met. One minute she was kind and attentive, and the next minute unsympathetic and combative when crossed.

He liked it.

"I told you, you remind me of my brother. You both smile when you're lying." She forcefully grabbed the nut Johnny was about to pop in his mouth and threw it back in the bowl. "Stop eating and come on. I want to win."

"But what about our dance?" Freddie cried as she sauntered away with Johnny in tow, leaving the coffee behind.

She stopped and turned on her heel. "I answered you the first time. Since your cerebral capillaries seem to be malfunctioning, let me refresh your memory. No."

He smiled, liking her saucy response. "Another time, then. You just say when, and I'll be waiting."

She looked determinedly into his unabashed eyes and bluntly said, "When hell freezes over, Freddie. That's when."

 

Chapter 7

Muggy weather combined with a light sprinkle of rain greeted the group in Pisa. The four hour drive from Rome already tested the patience of most of the passengers, but the added torture of having to listen to Ozzy Osborne's Hey Stupid repeatedly over the sound system made the drive unbearable. Maggie wished she and Johnny had never won that damn card game.

Pisa was swarming with tourists, making it difficult to walk along the narrow street that ran directly across from the Piazza dei Miracoli. It was lined with many merchants, all selling souvenirs of the bell tower to insatiable, spendthrift visitors.

After touring the Baptistery and Duomo, Maggie stopped at one of the souvenir booths. She was captivated not by one of the many different replicas of the tower but instead by a small wooden jewelry box. It was glazed with a rosy finish, had a small gold key and adorned with a red tassel that kept hidden treasures locked safely inside.

She picked up the box and let her hand slide across the smooth polish. Gently, she turned the key to the right and unbolted the tiny lock. To her amazement, when she lifted the cover open, the soft sound of a familiar Italian melody played.

She inquired as to the price of the music box and her eyes nearly popped out of her head when she heard the amount. The merchant informed her that this sort of music box was characteristic of generations of Pisan artisans who took painstaking amounts of time to carve the two intertwining roses engraved on the box.

With a heavy heart, she handed the box back to the helpful dealer. Never had she seen a more beautiful piece of artwork. It would have looked perfectly on her bedroom dresser, but her budget only allowed for so many extravagances, and this nicety was just too high a price.

She returned to the coach and sat beside Carly, deliberately passing Freddie without so much as a look in his direction.

Maggie had forgiven Carly for disclosing her relationship with Bobby to Johnny after winning at cards. She had had so much fun playing with Carly and Pino, especially when Pino swore so articulately at every losing hand, that when she returned to her room she couldn't help but smile and wonder over all the astounding events of the day.

She couldn't believe that Freddie had actually asked her to dance. She wondered if what Carly had said was true. Had he been staring at her all day? Was that why Constance had insulted her? Was Constance jealous of her? Was Freddie envious of the soldier at the Colosseum? It all just seemed odd.

Nothing made sense to her anymore. All she knew was that despite herself, she was terribly attracted to Freddie. She didn't want to be, she really didn't want to be. He was so rude and obnoxious to her that he didn't deserve the magnetism she felt for him. She didn't want to like him. She wanted to hate him.

How could she like a man who so callously slept around? She could never understand that type of behavior from either men or women. Being brought up in a strict moral environment meant never having the audacity to even consider behaving that way. If she did, she would live to regret it.

She never wanted the nasty, condemning remarks she had heard spoken about her cousin Claudia to ever be addressed to her. She made sure that no one in her family would ever doubt her virtue by faithfully upholding her parent's inflexible moral code.

"Hey Maggie! Look what I bought," Johnny cried enthusiastically when he boarded the bus. "I haggled the price down from 100,000 lira to 15,000!" he boasted proudly.

"For this leather belt?" she answered examining the article. "Get out! I don't believe you."

"No, really. It's the truth. This scalper had them hidden under his jacket and when he saw the cops coming he took whatever price I would pay. It was so funny. I've never seen a guy act so nervous before." Johnny dropped on his seat and lounged back comfortably. "Did you buy anything?"

"Just a few postcards."

"That's it? Don't you want a souvenir from each city? Carly's practically buying out Italy. I think we're going to need another suitcase just for her momentos."

"I haven't bought that much, Johnny," Carly protested.

"Oh really? We've been here three days and already you have four T-shirts, six scarves, three pairs of new shoes, two handbags and that music box."

"You bought a music box?" Maggie said turning to her friend. "Can I see it?"

Carly retrieved her bag from the overhead compartment and pulled out the box, handing it to Maggie.

"It's beautiful," she sighed. "I saw one too. It's a little different from yours but it was way too expensive."

"I know, they really overcharge, but I'm here now and I wanted a nice reminder of Pisa. Who knows when or if I'll ever be able to return. Every time I open it up and take out a pair of earrings, I'll think of my four hours in Pisa."

"So, I suppose that means you'll be buying something in Florence tomorrow too," Maggie said cheekily, handing the box back to Carly.

"Of course! I need some jewelry to go in it now, don't I?"

"I like the way you think Carly. I should have bought the box too," Maggie regretfully said.

As Pino pulled out of the parking lot and drove off to their next destination, Maggie wished she could ask him to stop and turn back to the market, but she knew it was too late.


Frederick opened the door to his hotel room and what he saw made him want to kill David. Nothing was going right today.

"I can't believe this!" he cried, hurling his suitcase in the chamber. "These rooms are deteriorating in comfort with every new city. He faced David and gave him a ruthless gaze. "I thought Rome was bad, but so far Florence...no, excuse me, Signa is worse! First there's no air conditioning and now..." he cried shaking his head in utter disbelief, "there's a double bed! There's no way in hell I'm sharing a bed with you, David."

"It's only for two nights, Freddie. It won't kill you."

"Forget it!" he roared. "I've had a terrible day and I'm tired of having to conform to your will. You invite me on this trip and you've blatantly ignored me since you met this-week's-love-of-your-life. I don't mind that so much, except that you've left me alone to endure the torture of your sister and Phoebe's company, which I cannot stand anymore."

Frederick had been harpooned by Constance and Phoebe for a third consecutive day, longer than any normal human could withstand. He was certain that Phoebe and Constance were in cahoots to keep him as far from Maggie as possible. Except for the one hour of freedom he was able to attain by claiming an urgent call of nature, they monopolized his attention all day, requesting his "male opinion" on stupid, outlandish purchases, deliberately taking their sweet time in making up their minds.

For an hour, he wandered the back streets of Pisa alone, losing himself within the crowd and actively searching for the one person he longed to be close to.

Whether she was posing for pictures or doing some shopping or just licking her ice cream, the sight of Maggie made his palms sweat and his heart race. He couldn't explain the wonderful feeling that overtook him when he stared at her.

Just a few days ago, he had disregarded her as unattractive, but now, the more he observed her, the more he loved what he saw. She was brimming with vitality and exuded an angry seductiveness. Her hatred of him fueled his desire for her more. No woman had ever turned his system so out of whack before. The warm, tingling sensation that quivered throughout his body when she refused to dance with him lasted throughout the entire night when he dreamt about her.

He wanted to scream when Constance came upon him as he was sitting on a pew in the Baptistery, ardently observing Maggie light a candle and praying. He had the urge to strangle Constance right there in the church in front of all the faithful Catholics when she vigorously kissed him as Maggie turned around.

He had had enough of Constance, he had had enough of David's indifferent attitude and he had had enough of the pathetic accommodations facing him once again.

"I agreed to come on this tour because you said it would cheer me up. So far, I'm not laughing. Go talk to Paola and tell her to get us another room or me my own room, because there's no way I'm sleeping with you."

"There are no other rooms, they're all booked. Didn't you hear her? There are three other tour groups in this small hotel."

"I don't care. Find a solution. I'm going for a walk and when I come back, it had better be resolved," Frederick ordered, leaving the room abruptly and forcefully slamming the door behind him.


The image of Freddie kissing Constance played in Maggie's mind repeatedly throughout the entire evening. She knew that Constance forced herself upon him, the repulsed look on Freddie's face afterwards confirmed it. But, somehow that fact didn't alleviate the jealousy that Maggie felt.

All through dinner, she wondered why Freddie hadn't come down to eat. Even though she had consciously ignored him all day, she at least wanted to feel his presence in the room.

She hoped that in suggesting a walk with Carly after dinner, they would meet him on one of the streets near the hotel or in the small square across from the hotel. She was out of luck. He was nowhere to be seen.

The walk combined with the heaviness of their 4-course dinner made Maggie drowsier than she anticipated so she proposed an early retirement to Carly, who equally exhausted from the busy traveling day eagerly agreed.

Together they slowly entered to hotel dragged their feet up the three flights of stairs and halted when they reached room 307.

"How come were stopping here?" Carly asked. "I thought you were in 305?"

"Not anymore."

"How come?"

"Because the ever-placating Olivia gave up our room without even asking me to David and Freddie."

"Why?"

"Apparently Freddie had a fit when he saw a double bed and told David to get them another room. David told my sister and she gave up our room, which had two twins, to them. Isn't she sweet?" Maggie said derisively, rolling her eyes in annoyance.

If there was anything Maggie hated, it was sleeping in the same bed as her sister. Olivia tended to hog all the covers, leaving Maggie with none.

"I can see that you're not too happy about this," Carly observed.

"No. The prospect of having to sleep with Olivia doesn't appeal to me at all. Plus the fact that it was done to accommodate Freddie really irks me even more. Why should I give up my bed for him of all people? My sister's not going to hear the end of this, that's for sure."

"Where is she?"

"Who knows."

"What about Freddie? I didn't see him all night."

"I have no idea where he went and I don't really care," Maggie lied.

"Yeah, right, Maggie! You're not the least bit interested where bachelor #2 is?" Carly teased.

Maggie turned away and put her key in the door, hiding her face from Carly. "No," she fibbed. She was just itching to know where he had gone.

Carly rested her back against the wall. "The more I think about it, the more I can't believe you didn't dance with him last night."

Maggie faced her friend swiftly. "Why should I after how he treated me? He was lucky I answered him as civilly as possible."

"Maggie, weren't you the least bit tempted to feel his muscular arms around you or breathe in his husky male scent?"

"How many times do I have to tell you this...No! I don't want to have anything to do with the guy."

"Well, I think he wants to have something to do with you. He was watching you again today. And if I may be so bold, I think he was undressing you with his eyes."

"Carly, I really think this change in time zones is severely hampering your brain. Freddie wasn't looking at me, he was busy kissing Constance, remember?"

"Oh please! That girl is so desperate it's sickening. She's threatened by you. She can see that Freddie has the hots for you and she's trying to hang on to him any way she can. She won't let him out of her sight for five minutes. If she's not watching over him, then she's got Phoebe doing her dirty work. I really feel sorry for Freddie. He looks so bored with them. No wonder he's always in a bad mood. I would be too if I were stuck with those two."

"Do you hear yourself? You're feeling sorry for the poor millionaire because he's bored?" Maggie said dumbfounded. "Spare me the sob story."

"But Maggie..."

"Carly that's enough!" Maggie stated steadfastly. "I can't take anymore of you defending this guy to me. Just get it through your head that I've disliked the man from our very first meeting and there's nothing you can say to make me change my mind."

"Fine. I won't bring it up again."

"Good. Good night. Now go dream about your reverend."

"I will. See you tomorrow."

Maggie opened the door to her room and was surprised to find the lights off and the shades closed. Olivia wasn't one to go to bed this early but she assumed her sister was tired from the fast-pace of the tour and had turned in early.

Maggie headed straight for the bathroom, purposely being quiet and not switching on any lights so as not to rouse Olivia. Once she changed into her babydoll she quietly tiptoed to her side of the bed and slipped between the covers, surprised that her sister had been kind enough to leave her some sheets. She quickly fell asleep and dreamt all night long about bachelor #2.

 

Chapter 8

The buzzing sound of the phone ringing in her ear woke Maggie up eight hours later. With a heavy hand, she picked up the receiver and heard a recorded message informing her of her wake-up call. With her lids slit open halfway, she put the receiver back in its place and groggily spoke to her sister. "Olivia... it's 6:30. Do you want the shower first?"

Maggie closed her eyes to catch a few more winks. Even though her eyes felt heavy, her brain was refreshed. For the first time in three nights she had had a restful sleep. She didn't know what to attribute it to. Perhaps her recurring dream of Frederick diving into the ocean and coming out dripping wet had something to do with it. Whatever it was, she hoped more restful nights would be in store for the remainder of the tour.

After a few moments of waiting for her sister to show some sign of life, she called out to her again. "Come on Olivia, do we have to go through this every morning? Would you wake up already." Olivia's deep sleep annoyed Maggie to no end. Not even an earthquake could rouse Olivia in the morning. "We have to hurry, we only have a half hour before breakfast."

With her back to her sister, Maggie waited again for Olivia to awaken but no response came forth. "You really know how to drive me crazy, do you know that?" Maggie said acrimoniously.

Tired of always having to drag Olivia out of bed, she briskly turned on her side to shake her sister.

A breath got caught in her throat. She felt herself gasping for air as she watched the body next to hers lie sleeping.

She shut her eyes firmly and then opened them. She repeated this motion over and over, each time hoping that when her top lid sprung free from the bottom, she wouldn't see the body that was lying right beside her.

When she finally realized that the sleeping body was no figment of her imagination and that the body was actually real, she let out a deafening, drawn-out scream.

The outcry pierced his eardrums and shattered his unconsciousness. His body suddenly jerked and his eyes quickly opened to see the screeching person beside him.

Am I dreaming? he wondered. It had to be a dream, he quickly concluded in his hazy blur. How else would Maggie be in his bed? How else would his wish have come true?

The more he stared, the more he realized that it wasn't a dream. She was in his bed.

She was sitting upright, pale-faced, with her dark hair cascading over the milkiness of her round shoulders. Round shoulders covered only by the thin strap of her sensual-looking babydoll.

His eyes searched for hers but she darted them away to the lower half of his body. He followed her gaze downward and soon understood why she seemed so entranced. Swiftly, he covered himself with the sheet, immediately breaking her hypnotic state.

Frantically, she jumped out of the bed and grabbed the lamp off the nightstand. "What the hell are you doing in my room?" she screamed, clutching the lamp with tense fingers. She was ready to use it over his head if he didn't come up with a viable reason.

A perplexed look washed over his face. "Your room? This is my room."

"No it isn't. It's mine," she said nervously, while her eyes scanned the cubbyhole, searching for Olivia. "Where's my sister?"

"In your room, I suppose."

"This is my room," Maggie declared adamantly.

"No, it's not," Frederick announced with a matching resolve in his voice.

"Yes it is! We switched rooms with you last night."

Freddie sat up, careful not to expose his lower half again. "No you didn't," he answered calmly.

"Yes, we did. I distinctly remember bringing my suitcase in here and placing it over...where is it?" Maggie yelled, when she no longer saw her Samsonite luggage near the windowsill.

"It's not here."

"What did you do with it?" she asked in an accusatory tone.

"Nothing! It wasn't here when I came in last night."

"Yes it was!"

"No it wasn't. I would remember seeing it if it had been here."

What in God's name was going on? Was she going insane? Had she woken up in the Twilight Zone? She shook her head, wondering how of all things she could have woken up next to Freddie.

She didn't like this situation. She was feeling nauseous and faint while the rest of her body tingled all over. Her breathing became more labored as she ogled his sinewy, smooth chest. It rippled with chiseled muscles that rivaled any Michelangelo masterpiece. God, the man was beyond gorgeous. She never thought any man could look so perfect, not even Bobby.

She racked her brain trying to understand what happened and came up with nothing. Her mind was a total blank, which maddened her even more. "What the hell is going on here?" she screamed with great agitation in her voice.

Frederick's eyes examined her sumptuous form, admiring her full curves and voluptuous breasts. He glared at her with a mischievous smirk cast across his face. "We spent the night together."

She shook her head continually, not wanting to admit the truth. "No we didn't."

"Yes we did," he replied as he put his hands behind his head and comfortably leaned back against the headboard.

Her heart raced at a frenzied pace. She couldn't have spent the night with him. She just couldn't have. She wasn't supposed to. It was wrong. Her father would kill her.

"That's impossible."

"No it isn't."

"Yes it is!" she cried, slamming her foot on the wood floor. She was sick of his contradictory responses and satisfied, jubilant look. "There's no way I'd spend the night with you." She paced the floor, all the muscles in her body tensing. "Oh I am going to kill Olivia!" she said with gritted teeth, wanting more than anything to throttle her absentee sister.

She was never ever going to forgive her for this. Never.

"This was all her idea to change rooms with you, all because you're such a ******* baby," she sneered, tossing the lamp at him.

He scurried out of the way, falling onto the floor and bringing the sheets with him. He fell on his bare bottom, smiling, not at all minding the pain. He had never woken up to such a display in his life. No woman had ever thrown anything at him or even cursed at him.

He loved it.

"I'm a baby?" he asked laughing from the floor.

"You're damn right you are!" she screamed. Maggie hadn't cursed this much in a long time. The last time she recalled being this angry was in the ninth grade when she went to school smelling like Pepe Le Pew after her cat had been sprayed by some rambunctious skunk. She blasted anyone who sniffed her or looked at her disparagingly. She was even sent home early by Sister Agatha for cursing her by accident. "We wouldn't be in this mess if you hadn't made such a fuss. God forbid you shared a bed with your friend. You had to complain like the spoiled, smug, condescending b****** you are."

Was this the girl he watched praying in Pisa? Was this the girl who lit a candle in every church she visited? He couldn't believe it. There was such a myriad of different facets to Margaret Fiorentino. "For a girl who prays, you sure like to swear a lot, don't you?" he said cheekily, getting up from the floor with the sheets wrapped firmly around his waist.

She shot him a glance indicating she found no amusement in his comment. "I call it like I see it."

He smiled. He was more attracted to her now than he had ever been. "I liked it better when your sister gagged you," he fibbed, wanting to provoke her some more. He had never had such a sexually charged exchange before; he was becoming increasingly titillated with each insult. The urge to grab her and gag her mouth with his became so strong that he had to sit on the bed to control himself.

"I prefer telling you exactly what I think of you."

"You really don't like me, do you?"

She sighed an exasperated breath. "My, you're astute. Aren't you?" she answered sarcastically.

"So astute to know that we spent the night together."

"No we didn't."

"Yes we did" he said, still smiling. "Why do you want to deny it? If we didn't do anything, I can't understand why you're so upset?"

"Because I'm not used to waking up to strange naked men in my bed, and having them see me in my night..." she stopped mid-word and looked at herself, realizing that a light cotton barely covered her body. "Madonna! Where are my jeans?"

She frantically searched for her clothes, trying to remember where she had put them. She consciously felt the heat of his lustful gaze on her body making her even more nauseous. "Stop staring," she ordered firmly.

He laughed, watching her scamper around the tiny room looking for her clothes.

"This isn't funny," she bellowed from the bathroom.

"Yes it is."

"No it isn't. Maybe you're used to entertaining hoards of women in your lair who don't care about their reputations, but I'm not like that," she stated definitely. She put her blouse and jeans over her pajamas and shoved her bra in her pocket. She came out looking more disheveled than when she went in.

"I know. You're different," he said softly.

She walked to the door, heedless of his last remark. She was consumed only of thoughts of her father's explosive reaction to hearing that one of his daughters had been in bed with a man. "I'm dead! I am so dead!" she said to herself. "I have to get out of here."

She nervously tried to unfasten the bolt but her fingers fidgeted. She then pulled at the handle, trying to tear it open. When it wouldn't budge, she kicked the door with her foot, all the while repeating the same mantra: "Dad's going to kill me. He's going to kill me."

She was not exaggerating. Tony Fiorentino upheld strict rules for his daughters.

No sexual indulgences would be permitted before marriage.

None.

No scandal or impropriety was ever to be brought home.

None.

As long as he remained alive, they were never to disgrace or shame him.

Never.

Perhaps he was a trifle harsh with his girls as compared to other fathers, but his discipline worked. None of his girls had ever succumbed to the peer pressure that so often affected their female friends and even some relatives. With these rules, he assured himself that none of his daughters would ever have a child out of wedlock, contract a sexually transmitted disease, sully the family name or risk a bright future for a carnal dalliance.

As these rules rampantly flooded her brain, Maggie was heedless to Frederick's approach. Only when she felt his hands on her shoulders did she jump back in alarm. "Let go of me," she hollered, tearing herself from his slight grasp.

Frederick had never witnessed a woman so impatiently want to escape his hold. "My God Maggie! I'm just going to open the door for you. I'm not going to harm you. Why are you so fidgety?"

"Because I don't want to be under the same roof as you let alone in the same bed," she blurted out as she slammed the door in his face.

She leaned back against the frame and took a moment to close her eyes and stabilize her breathing. It had become uneven and short. She stood there, her head bowed and arms limply hanging at her sides, trying to calm her shaken nerves.

With her mind totally in a muddle, she didn't know what to do or how to feel. The realization that her father would now castigate and disown her plagued her wildly beating heart while the shock of seeing an actual naked male made her stomach jittery. So jittery, she wanted to puke. She crouched to the floor and lowered her head in her hands to ease the queasiness.

She couldn't understand what was wrong with her. She was usually a very together girl. She had had boyfriends, she had been around men before, but something about this one man unleashed an unbridled passion inside her. A passion she had never really known before.

She wasn't supposed to feel this way. She wasn't supposed to act on that passion. All through her childhood and adolescence she was implicitly told, either by her parents or by those nuns, that she had to remain virtuous. It was wrong to indulge in her fantasies or desires.

Wrong.

She had been able to follow these regulations with relative ease for the first twenty-one years of her life until just now. The inundating hunger for Frederick's body that flooded her senses scared her witless.

The conflicting emotions inside her frightened her. She wasn't supposed to feel this way, yet she did. She wanted to hate Freddie, yet she didn't. The only thing she wasn't conflicted about was her sister. Had Olivia not volunteered their room away, none of this would have happened.

Incensed with her forever indulging sister, Maggie zealously knocked on room 305, hoping Olivia would open the door. When no one answered, Maggie once again cursed under her breath, wanting more than anything to choke Olivia with her bare hands.

She walked over to 315 hoping that Carly and not Johnny would answer her. She was relieved to see Carly, in her Winnie-the-Pooh pajamas, groggily open the door.

From Maggie's ashen expression, disheveled hair and sloppy blouse buttoning, Carly knew something was wrong. "Maggie! What happened?" she asked worried.

"Have you seen my sister?"

"No. She's not with you?"

"No." Maggie pulled Carly into the corridor and grasped her friend's arms for support. "Carly, I slept with Freddie!"

Carly's eyes quickly burst open. "What?" she yelled using a vocal cord she never thought she had.

"It was an accident, there was a mix-up with the rooms last night and when I woke up this morning he was right next to me."

The two continued conversing when an ill-humored Olivia came upon them. "Maggie! Where have you been? I woke up and saw that your bed wasn't slept in and got so worried that I went out looking for you."

"Where have I been? Where have you been?" Maggie angrily replied, hands firmly placed on her hips. "If you would leave David alone for five minutes and actually spend some time talking to me, I wouldn't have gotten into such a huge mess. This is all your fault Olivia!" she shouted.

"My fault?"

"Yes. Had we not changed rooms last night I wouldn't have..." she stopped when other tourists came out of their rooms to head downstairs for breakfast. She wanted as few people as possible to know what had transpired with Freddie.

She shot a skeptical glance at Carly. She wondered if she had made a wise decision in telling her friend the truth. Knowing Carly the way she did, this new tidbit of interesting gossip would be all over the bus by the time they left for Florence.

"Wouldn't have what?" Olivia asked curiously.

Maggie took a deep breath, trying to pacify her exasperated nerves. "Olivia, I am trying to be as calm as possible because I want to get this whole mess cleared up. So, take me to whichever room is ours and I'll fill you in there," she fumed.

Olivia observed her sister's countenance. It was ridden with perturbation. She wondered what had happened to affect her sister's temperament so greatly. With a dismal feeling tightening the walls of her stomach, Olivia guided Maggie down the hall to their room.

"Since when is 305 our room?" Maggie asked, as Olivia sneaked her key in the keyhole.

"Since we switched back last night."

"Oh we did, did we?" Maggie asked contemptuously as they entered their chamber. "Why didn't you tell me?"

"I did."

"No you didn't. If you had, I would have slept here last night instead of sleeping with Freddie!"

"What?" Olivia said startled. She quickly closed the door behind her so no one else could be privy to their conversation. She turned around and stared at her sister. Maggie sat on her unslept-in bed, wishing more than anything the clock could be turned back eight hours. "You heard me," she yelled back. "I slept in the same bed with him thinking that I was sleeping in my bed, in my room, with you!"

Olivia sat on her own bed, slouching her shoulders and resting her hands in her lap. "I thought you got my message."

"What message? I never got any message, Olivia."

"I left a note with the desk clerk downstairs. Last night after dinner, when you went for a walk with Carly, Paola told us that she had found another room, so David moved in there and I brought our suitcases back here. David told Frederick when he came back and I left you a message downstairs thinking the desk clerk would give it to you."

Maggie reclined on the mattress, throwing her hands over her head in exasperation. "That's why my suitcase was gone. I couldn't figure out why it was missing."

"Maggie, didn't you realize that it wasn't me in bed with you last night?"

Maggie shot up faster than bullet fired from a revolver. "Obviously not Olivia!" she cried, even more infuriated with her sister. "I was so tired last night when I entered his room. The lights were out and I figured you were already asleep. I didn't turn them on so as not to wake you and I went straight to the bathroom to change into my pajamas."

"Your pajamas?"

"Yeah, I took them out of my suitcase before I came down to dinner and left them near the tub."

"Which pajama?"

"The babydoll. Why?"

Maggie observed her sister's change of mien. Olivia stared wide-eyed in oblivion, chewing on a lock of her hair. Whenever Olivia did that, something was wrong. The longer Maggie watched her sister, pools of saliva formed in her mouth. "What is it?" she inquired dreadfully.

"Oh, Maggie! Why did you have to wear that one?" Olivia lamented.

"Because it's bloody hot in this country and there's no air conditioning in this hotel either. Why?"

"Well, haven't you noticed that after so many washings, it's kind of become a bit..."

"A bit what? Faded? I already know that."

"No, not faded. Kind of..."

"Kind of what?" Maggie hollered, every fiber in her being tensing in anticipation of her sister's response.

"Kind of... see-through," Olivia said delicately.

"See-through? See-through?" Maggie repeated loudly. "No! No! It hasn't!" she said stubbornly before quickly running to the bathroom to view herself in the mirror. It couldn't be see-through. She would have noticed it before, she told herself as she removed her blouse and jeans.

More expletives than she thought possible emitted from her mouth when she caught sight of her very visible body through the light material. "Why didn't you tell me?" she screamed furiously.

"I've tried, but for some stupid reason you never wanted to throw it out."

"Well, I'm throwing it out now!"

"Maggie, would you calm down a little. My God, I've never seen you so agitated before. It was a simple misunderstanding, nothing bad came out of it."

"Nothing bad? Nothing bad? My reputation is ruined!"

"No it isn't."

"Yes it is! Do you know how this looks? My God Olivia! After only three days on this tour, people see me coming out of his room with my hair a mess and my clothes wrinkled, do you know what kind of message that says? It says I'm easy!"

"You're not easy," Olivia said reassuringly.

"I know I'm not easy, you know I'm not easy, but everyone else will think I am."

"Maggie, no one cares."

"Are you kidding me? The majority of people on this tour are old and have nothing else better to do than sit around and gossip about everyone else. I bet by the time I get on that bus, everyone will know that I slept with him." Maggie walked back to her bed and fell on her stomach, burying her head in the pillow. "This is a nightmare. I wish I had never gone to Catholic school."

"Catholic school? What does Catholic school have anything to do with this?"

"Because those nuns made me so paranoid about sex that I feel guilty even though I didn't do anything."

"You didn't do anything, did you Maggie?" Olivia asked reticently.

Maggie sat up and threw the pillow at her sister, hitting her in the face. "No! How could you even ask me that? I don't even know the man! All I did was wake up and find him next to me...naked."

"Naked?"

"Uh-huh! Oh God I'm dead! I am so dead! Dad's going to kill me."

"Kill you?" Olivia laughed. "Maggie, you're exaggerating now. How's Dad going to find out? I'm not going to tell him."

Maggie looked at her sister dumbfounded. "Excuse me? We are Italian, are we not? Somewhere, sometime, this episode is going to come back to haunt me. All Italians know each other somehow."

"You're really losing it, do you know that?"

"I know!" Maggie fell back upon the bed, pulling the covers over her head, trying to hide from the reality of the eventful morning. "Why do I feel like I have to go to confession?"

"Confession? OK Maggie, that's enough! You did nothing wrong and it was an honest mistake. It's not the end of the world," Olivia proclaimed as she tore the blanket off her sister and pulled her up out of bed. "Go take a shower. Hopefully, the water will relax you. Either that or I'm going to get you a huge glass of wine."

Maggie reluctantly agreed, hoping that the shower would calm her. She didn't know how she was going to face Freddie for the rest of the tour. There was still over a week and a half to go and all she wanted to do was crawl under the biggest rock in all of Italy. She had never been so embarrassed in her life. She wondered if she could persuade Pino to drive her back to Rome and leave her in the Colosseum. It was big enough to hide in.


For once, Frederick was thankful for his shabby accommodations. They provided him with two superior services that he would never have found at the Ritz. He would never have woken up next to a screaming Maggie at a more fancy hotel nor would he have had the chance to listen in on Maggie's conversation.

The lackluster insulation and thinness of the walls afforded him the perfect opportunity to hear every word of his beloved's distraught admission to her sister.

His beloved.

She was definitely his beloved. As soon as she had thrown the lamp at him, he had surrendered his heart to the dark-haired Fireball.

As he lay on the bed, a smile overcame his face the more he thought about Maggie's direct tongue, her fidgety reaction to his exposed body and the see-through baby doll that he definitely didn't want thrown out.

 

 

Chapter 9

 

It took no more than a few minutes before the news was out. As soon as Maggie and Olivia had gone off to their room, Carly informed her brother about Maggie and Freddie's sleeping misadventure. Johnny, who like his sister wasn't one to hold onto a secret for very long, quickly ran down to the dining hall to pass on the news to Dinah who in turn, laughingly divulged it to Pino.

But Pino, being a man of meager English faculties, misunderstood Dinah's account and incorrectly assumed that Maggie and Frederick had indeed engaged in his favorite form of exercise.

He found no shame in their nocturnal amusement and wondered what had taken them so long; three days being an eternity in his view. He had witnessed their respective oglings and had bet Paola that he would hear of a carnal escapade between them before the tour was over.

With great enthusiasm he familiarized Paola of his winning wager while they waited in the lobby for the group to arrive for their city tour of Florence. Paola never believed that anything would happen between Maggie and Frederick, especially after the run-in at the information session and begrudgingly conceded to her loss.

As she handed over 50,000 lire to her colleague, neither she nor Pino realized that Phoebe was listening in on their conversation. Phoebe hid herself well behind a large azalea plant and listened thoroughly while her violet eyes scrutinized the entire length of Pino's backside. She had been leering at Pino for the past few evenings; watching him at any and every opportunity.

Upon first arriving in Italy, Phoebe had set her mind on a particular goal: for a young Italian stud, similar to the stable boy she had been with when she was seventeen, to please her.

Her opinion however, changed after she caught sight of a sweaty Pino loading and unloading the suitcases from the motorcoach. His flexing muscles, machismo and unmitigated sexual demeanor made her head swoon. She longed to feel the blond stubble of his beard graze against her cheek while he made her cry out the way she had heard Dinah screech. She desperately wanted to be the one whom he entertained at the back of the bus.

By the time the tour ended, she would have Pino.

She would.

But not now.

She ran back up to her room to impart the dreadful news to Constance. Phoebe knew the news about Maggie and Frederick would anger her friend, but it couldn't be avoided. Constance needed to know what she was up against. In Phoebe's view, this new tidbit made Constance's chances of successfully wooing Frederick extremely doubtful.

It was obvious to all that Frederick showed distaste and repugnance whenever in Constance's company and regarded Maggie with totally opposite emotions.

Why Constance subjected herself to Frederick's austere slights time and time again, puzzled many. She didn't need Frederick. She was beautiful, wealthy and could have anyone. But Constance had engraved it in her subconscious to be Frederick's wife, and no matter how he felt about it or how she truly felt about it, she wanted it to happen.

The account of Maggie's overnight stay in Frederick's bed did not go over well with Constance. She tried not to be phased by the news, for it wasn't the first time she had heard of a dalliance between Frederick and some unrefined tart, but the more she pictured her Frederick in bed with that cheap American, the more her claws sharpened.

"How could he have slept with her?" she raged, staring out the window overlooking the courtyard in front of the hotel. "What could he possibly see in that repulsive, tasteless harlot?" she hissed, shriveling her eyes as she observed Maggie waiting to board the bus. "Just look at her for crying out loud! Look at her hair, her clothes and those shoes! Good God, they're horrible!" she berated, observing Maggie's white pair of Reeboks.

With her countenance laden with wrath, Constance spun around to face her friend. "How could he prefer her to me? Huh? How?" she questioned utterly perplexed. "I'm wearing Armani for heaven's sakes! Armani!"

Phoebe sighed. "I can't understand it either, Constance" she said in hopes of consoling her friend. "There is just no comparison, dear. You have style and she sorely lacks it. But I suppose Frederick just ignored that for a moment and succumbed to lust. You can't really fault him, though. Any man would surrender to white trash who seduces him."

Constance's mien sprouted quizzically. Seduces him?! Seduces him?!

"That's right!" Constance said after a moment's contemplation "She seduced him! He didn't go after her. She came chasing him." Constance peered through the glass one more time, eyeing Maggie resentfully. "Oh... how I hate these poor girls who throw themselves at my man in order to improve their social standing," she seethed.

As her eyes glared contemptuously through her fifth floor window, she decided to take action. She resolved by the end of the day to put that American hussy in her place once and for all.

***

Maggie sat on the steps of the Santa Croce Basilica with her head bowed, staring down at her feet. She didn't want to look up into the sea of reproachful eyes that she believed was judging her. From the moment she boarded the bus until now, she averted her gaze from others and spoke to no one, not even her sister.

She sat pensively, fingers interlaced on her lap, in quiet reflection, just waiting for the tide to die. She knew she never should have told Carly what happened in Freddie's room. As soon as the words escaped from her lips, she wanted to pull them back. It was inevitable that the gossip would spread with Carly's insatiable appetite for scandal.

This wasn't how Maggie wanted to visit Florence. She wanted to savor in the moving art and landscape of the city and so far, she hadn't.

When the bus stopped at Piazzale Michelangelo and everyone cooed over the awe-inspiring lookout of Florence, she just leaned against the stone balustrade, oblivious to it all. She didn't see Giotto's Campanile or the Duomo, and was utterly unaware of the famous old bridge crammed with small, colorful houses that crossed the Arno River. All she saw was the image of a naked Frederick restfully sleeping beside her.

His nude form still dominated her thoughts when Paola approached her.

"Are you sick of churches already?" Paola inquired as she sat next to her charge. She was delighted to be off her feet for a few token minutes and escape Reverend Tewksbury's constant insipid questions.

"No. I just don't feel like putting on my jeans. It's too hot," Maggie said, using any excuse she could think of so as not to be anywhere near the gabby members of the group, especially the septuagenarian chatterbox Gladys Goldman who had been whispering about her all morning long.

Paola smiled knowing that that excuse was not the real reason for Maggie's absence inside the basilica. "You don't have to change clothes. They'll let you in with what you're wearing. Your shorts aren't too short." As a tour guide for the past five years, Paola knew which churches followed the particular dress code of covered shoulders, knees and hatless heads, and which ones didn't.

"God that was boring!" Johnny exclaimed boisterously as he plunked his baseball cap back on his head and plopped himself beside Maggie. "When are we going to do or see something exciting instead of pew after pew after pew," he complained. "Madonna Paola! If I had wanted to spend so much time in churches, I would have joined the priesthood."

Johnny's lament came as no surprise to Paola. He wasn't the first nineteen-year-old guy on one of her tours to express the same sentiment. Most guys his age were more interested in committing sins rather than relishing in the poignant frescoes and mosaics of her homeland's basilicas.

She wouldn't have minded committing one particular sin with him, but after careful deliberation, she decided against it. Even though he made her laugh with his enthusiasm and when he spoke to her in his adorable Italian dialect, he was far too young and foolish for a sensibly matured woman of twenty-six, such as herself.

"What would you like to see?" she asked with a brimming smile.

"Well... How about the David. Isn't that what most people come to see in when they visit Florence?"

"I'm sure it is, but it's not on our itinerary. We're not going to see it."

"What do you mean we're not going to see it?" Johnny said with bewildered disappointment. He glanced at Maggie who seemed equally stunned at the news. "I came all the way to Florence from Vancouver to see it, Paola!" he stressed with wide eyes and arched brows. "Do you know how far Vancouver is? It took me seven hours just to get out of Canada and then another six to cross the Atlantic, and now you're telling me that I came all this way and I'm not going to see Michelangelo's masterpiece?!"

"I'm sorry but it's a Monday and the museum is closed."

Johnny's petulance brewed at Paola's apologetic reply. "You know, the more I'm in this country, the more I'm finding things that annoy me."

"Really? Like what?" she asked him curiously.

This was the opening Johnny had been waiting for. For the past three days he itched to have his complaints heard by someone. "First of all, the service is downright lousy. Who ever heard of having to stand in one line to get a ticket and pay for your food and then having to stand in another longer line to actually get the grub? Back home, we have fast food. You know, within a minute the Big Mac's in your hand, and not only that, but you only wait in one line."

Paola rolled her eyes. Every North American she encountered seemed predisposed to impatience. "So you find the service slow. So what?" she retorted with a wave of her hand. "What's your rush? Relax Giovanni, you'll live to be an old man that way," she counseled. "Is there anything else about my country that bothers you?"

"Yup! The siesta. It's the most preposterous notion I've ever heard of. I cannot believe that the shops and restaurants close all afternoon long. Yesterday, just as I was ready to order some pizza, this old woman kicked me out of her restaurant because it was one o'clock and it was time for her to take a nap. Never in a million years would Pizza Hut throw a paying customer out the door because the cook was sleepy."

"Giovanni, we take a rest in the afternoon because it's too hot to work. Nobody feels like standing behind a hot stove when it's over 100° outside. But, I suppose you can't understand that because you're from Canada, where all you do is freeze and play hockey" she kidded.

"Freeze and play hockey?" Johnny imitated in pretended insult. "I'll have you know, that where I live, we don't freeze at all. The weather is comfortable year round and not only that, but I don't even own a pair of hockey skates. For a tour guide, you should be ashamed of your ignorance of other countries of the world."

"Why should I care about other countries? I live in the best one there is!" she said proudly.

"Oh Puleeze! Stop kidding yourself Paola. Italy's at the bottom of the list and you want to know why?"

As Maggie listened to the conversation, she wondered if Johnny had been drinking. How on earth could he even consider Italy to be one of the worse countries in the world.

"Why?" Paola asked.

"Yeah, why?" Maggie questioned as well. For the first time since waking up, something other than Frederick captured her thoughts.

Johnny was thrilled to have such enthralled listeners that he stood up to face both girls. He thrust his hands in his pockets and raised his head condescendingly while attempting to suppress the impish grin that spurted every time he tried to act seriously. "What defines a country has nothing to do with history, culture, art, or music - which Italy is rich in - and on that score, is probably number one..."

"Grazie mille," Paola interrupted with mock gratitude.

"What defines a country," he continued heedless of her outburst, "is its toilets."

"Toilets?" Maggie and Paola both laughed.

"Yes."

"You're joking? Right?" Maggie said.

"I'm serious. In North America, the bathrooms are pretty much the same, that's why we're world leaders, but here, everywhere I go, they're different. Either there's a string to pull, a peddle to press or a button to push. I have to make a bloody inspection on how to flush the damn thing before I can take a leak! If you can't decide on something basic like a toilet, no wonder you can't decide on a government."

As Maggie and Paola's laughter grew, Johnny knew he had succeeded, if only for a brief moment, in bringing Maggie out of her introspective mood. He had witnessed her solemn state all morning and hated it. If Maggie was upset, then the whole busload seemed to lack liveliness. There appeared to be a direct correlation between Maggie's humor and the rest of the passengers.

He wanted her upbeat demeanor to return to full force so he carried on with his lighthearted lavatory tirade. "And since I'm on the topic of toilets," he said with his attention directed at Paola, "could you please tell me what's that other bowl I keep seeing in our hotel bathrooms? I've never seen anything like it before. I turned the knob and some water squirted out so high that I took a sip. It is a water fountain? Am I right?"

"Una fontana?" Paola repeated in chuckling disbelief. She glimpsed at Maggie who had just about bowled over with laughter at Johnny's unfamiliarity with the puzzling contraption.

"Giovanni, tu mi fai ridere."

"I'm not trying to make you laugh, Paola," he lied. "I want to know what it is."

After ridding herself of all her chuckles, Paola took a deep breath and answered with a peaceful sigh. "It's called a bidet. And believe me, it's not a water fountain."

Johnny scratched his head in feigned bafflement. "A bidet? What's a bidet? I took French in school but I have no idea what that is."

Paola rose from the steps and smiled wildly, wiping the tears from her brown eyes. "Have your mother explain it to you, or better yet, let Maggie give you a detailed description of its real target," she replied before walking across the square to meet Pino at the coffee bar.

Once they were alone, Johnny sat beside his friend and put his arm protectively around her. "So, are you feeling better, Maggie?"

She gave him a sparkling grin. It was impossible for her mood to not have improved. "Yeah, I'm feeling better," she answered as she regarded him whimsically. "Johnny, you really have no idea what a bidet is for?"

"I do now. Carly fell on the floor in hysterics when she saw me take a sip. How was I to know that it's used to wash a woman's intimate area?" he replied sarcastically, repeating his sister's euphemism. "I spit that water out so fast, you have no idea."

Maggie laughed again, heartily. Johnny joined in as well, and the two found themselves relishing in a lengthened giggling stretch. But Maggie's merriment did not last long. It abruptly came to a halt when her eyes caught sight of Frederick walking diagonally across the square. He had exited the basilica from the left doorway, and now strolled the piazza at a leisurely pace with his hands in his pockets, humming a silvery tune.

"He's still whistling that song?" Johnny remarked.

"What do you mean ‘still'?"

"He was whistling inside the basilica too. He only shut up when one of the guards told him to stop."

Maggie's ears went on alert to decode the song. Although she heard the beginning bars very faintly, she recognized the melody immediately. How could she not have? She had listened to Frank Sinatra most of her life. Practically every member of her family played his songs religiously, especially her grandmother. Not a day seemed to go by without one of Frank's tunes blaring in the pizzeria. But now, as the lyrics played over and over again in her mind, she vowed to rip "Strangers in the Night" out of the jukebox.

Her stomach contorted in knots when she realized that if Johnny had heard Frederick humming, then everyone else had too. Even though nothing had happened between them, no one would believe it now. Frederick's reverie-like state and his selection of song clearly left everyone with the impression that the rumor was indeed true.

Her heart quickened with fury at this realization. Frederick didn't care about her feelings. He was solely concerned with his image. The millionaire playboy had a reputation to uphold. A salacious, lascivious reputation.

He didn't care that he tarnished hers. He didn't care that all the old busybodies on the bus were whispering about her and conveniently forgetting to gossip about her supposed lover.

Her face flushed with anger and her hands fisted as she gazed disgustingly at his passing form. Oh how she wished her grandmother was with her now. Nonna Serafina would bestow the mal'occhio on him. The evil eye would punish him for his galling whistle.

As though he sensed that he was being damned, Frederick spun around to see his sweetheart's eyes shooting daggers in his midst. He was tempted to walk toward her and remove that unflattering pout from her china doll face with a kiss, but he refrained.

He would wait for a more opportune time to set his mouth down on hers. He simply stared back, his dark eyes locking with hers for a long moment. Then he veered in the opposite direction, planning to tour Florence on his own and let her be for the day.

He had not completed two footsteps when he paused and turned to face Maggie another time. Then he smiled and winked at her before making his way down to the Ponte Vecchio.

 

 

 

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