Charmer's Death

Temptation in Florence #2

Beate Boeker

A shadow fell over her.

Caroline looked up from the cash register of her lingerie store Temptation, and a smile of pure welcome spread across her face. “Is it Christmas already?”

“What a nice greeting.” Trevor took off his wet raincoat and dropped it onto the low bench in front of the register. “I feel like Santa Claus, coming early.” He went into the area Caroline kept for herself and placed both hands on her shoulders. “Let me have a look at you, my girl.” His blue eyes shone. “You’re looking well.”

She laughed and removed his hands from her shoulders. “Not good enough for your standards.” One of her eyebrows lifted in a half-reluctant question. “Who is it this time?”

He gave he a mischievous smile. “A ravishing redhead. She’s exquisite.”

“Of course she’s ravishing.” Caroline shook her head. “I never expected anything else.” She leaned against the cash register and pushed both hands into the pockets of her trousers. With a slight frown, she looked at him for a moment, the silence between them easy, as if they were friends, which maybe they were . . . though their friendship was unusual, to say the least. Then she surprised herself and him by asking. “Are you never going to settle down?”

He opened his eyes wide in mock surprise and pushed a tanned hand though his black hair. It was graying at the temples, but that didn’t make him less attractive – on the contrary.

Caroline suppressed a grin. He knows how attractive his arm looks when his muscles bulge like that. That’s why he’s wearing a tee-shirt. She slanted a look at the rain outside, beating down on the ancient buildings of the historical center of Florence and rubbed her hands over the sleeves of her light-green cashmere sweater, glad to be warm.

“Of course I’m not settling down.” Trevor’s heavy signet ring blinked in the store’s light. “Life would be without zest, wouldn’t it?” He shook his head. “What kind of a question is that anyway? I’m your customer.” He winked. “Have they taught you no manners?”

“I save them for those who appreciate it.” Caroline grinned back. “I’m sorry to hear she’s a redhead because I’ve just unpacked a delightful Christmas set in a gorgeous red color.” She pointed to the shelf at her left. “It’s over there. The slip ties at the side and is decorated with white feather balls. I thought of you when I ordered it.”

He smiled. “Keep it for next year, Carlina. I’ll find a raven-haired woman to match that set.”

He called her with the nickname her family and half the town used – Carlina. She didn’t mind that at all, but at his words, she didn’t know if she should laugh or be offended. “Do you have no shame?”

“Why should I?” He shrugged. “I’m not promising them everlasting love. They know what they let themselves in for. I’m always honest.”

Caroline cocked her head to the side. “But what if they hope for more?”

“I can’t help it if they choose to delude themselves.” He made a move with his hand as if to wipe away the conversation. “Enough about that. How about you? Have you settled down, as you call it?” He grinned. “Or something better?”

The image of Stefano’s face rose in front of her inner eyes, but she pushed it away. Even if her relationship with Stefano had developed into more than a romantic craving, which, alas, it had not, she would not discuss him with Trevor. Her feelings were too . . . private, too precious to share with this man who went out with a different woman every Christmas, as if they were Christmas trees, raised to shine for four weeks a year, discarded afterwards. “No.”

“No? Just a simple no?” Trevor shook with laughter. “How can the owner of the most wonderful lingerie store in Florence, no, in the world, live like a nun?”

She grinned. “For the first part of that sentence, thank you. For the second, no comment.”

He sighed. “Ah, you’re hard.”

Caroline shook her head. “Nowhere near as hard as you are.”

“Me?” The blue eyes opened wide, mesmerizing her. “I’m not hard.”

“I wonder if your many exes agree.” She regarded him, thoughtful. “How do you do it?”

“What?” Trevor stroked his cheeks as if he had just finished shaving.

If only he didn’t know what a determined jaw he has, and how good his chin looks when he pushes it forward like that. I would like him even better. “How do you get rid of them so easily?” she asked.

“It’s all a matter of preparation,” Trevor said. “I tell them from the start we’re going to have some delightful weeks. Not more, not less. When my vacation comes to an end, the relations ship ends too. It’s as easy as that. Every Christmas.”

His words were callous, but his honesty disarmed her. He’s too charming for his own good. “Was it always that easy?”

Trevor flinched. “Let’s not talk about the mistakes of the past. It’s way too nice to be back in Florence again. Now show me what you think would suit my stunning redhead.”

Caroline didn’t move. “What will happen if you ever fall in love?” she asked.

He turned to a black lace bra and grinned over his shoulder. “But I do, my dear. I do. Every single time.”
II

Annalisa leaned against the cash counter of Temptation and glared at her cousin. “It’s time to close this shop.” She pronounced each word with care, as though Caroline was deaf. “Now.”

Caroline tidied her desk with hurried moves. “Just a minute, Annalisa. I only need to file this invoice, and then . . . “ She hated to leave stuff lying about when closing up for the night.

“You’ve been saying this for a quarter of an hour, and I’m bored.” Annalisa rolled her eyes. “I’m also hungry, and you promised me dinner.”

Caroline smiled at her. “You won’t starve. Besides, do you know that you sound like a five-year-old kid and not like an almost-twenty-year-old woman?”

“Ha. Almost twenty.” Annalisa turned a strand of her long hair in her hand. “That’s just the point. I’m spending my life waiting, and before I know it, whooosh, I’m twenty, past the age of all fun.”

Caroline shook her head. “Dreadful. But there is a life beyond twenty, believe me. At thirty-two, I have sufficient experience to tell you.”

Annalisa made a contemptuous move with her hand. “Your universe is this store.”

“Quite right.” Caroline looked around. Her gaze came to rest with pride on the clever storage drawers beneath each hanger that kept bras of all sizes in well-assorted rows, on the brand-new window mannequin, on the red Christmas bra and panties she had put on display today. “It’s enough for me,” she said. “You shouldn’t underestimate how attractive a tiny universe can be if it’s all in your own hands. You can manipulate it, and it’s up to you to make it a success. Few things equal that feeling.”

Her cousin perked up. “Yes, I see what you mean. I love the name of your store, always have.” She sighed. “Temptation . . . it’s perfect.” Then she frowned. “But isn’t it boring to deal with the same stuff year in and out?”

“It changes, believe me.” Caroline smiled. “The lingerie industry may not advance in the same huge steps as mobile communication, but there are always changes. In a few days, for example, I’ll exhibit at the Florence Christmas Fair for the first time.”

“I’ve head about that.” Annalisa said. “Doesn’t the wife of the major organize it?”

“Yes, Sabrina does. It’s her dream to support the business women of Florence, so she came up with the concept of the Christmas Fair. Do you remember my school friends Francesca, the glass blower, and Rosanna, who has that great flower shop?”

“Nah.” Annalisa shrugged. “Unless you mean that tiny woman who looks like a cross between a troll and a fern?”

Caroline grinned. “That’s Rosanna. Sabrina invited them both, and some others, to exhibit the crafts of Florence during the fair.”

“Hmm.” Annalisa looked at an embroidered bra. “But the underwear you sell isn’t exactly Florentine art, is it? So how come you were invited?”

“They still had some room to fill, so Rosanna thought of me and suggested that I join, and I developed a concept for lacy underwear. The lace is from Bartosti.”

Annalisa started to shake with silent laughter. “Bartosti? The big lace company? You’re kidding me.”

Caroline swallowed. “Stop laughing. My underwear has nothing to do with their usual lace coverings for toilet rolls. It’s sexy, believe me.”

“Lace coverings for butts.” Annalisa shook her head. “Whatever will you do next?”

Caroline wanted to change the subject. It had taken her weeks of hard work to develop something she liked together with Bartosti, and she didn’t like the idea of consumers laughing at her efforts. Hopefully other people wouldn’t react like Annalisa. Maybe it had been a mistake to team up with such a traditional manufacturer.

“Can I see that super-lace-thing?” Annalisa asked.

“No.” Caroline pressed her lips together. “Come to the fair on December 23rd, then you’ll see it.” And don’t you dare to laugh in front of strangers at my work.

Annalisa frowned. “Aren’t you a bit touchy?”

Caroline tried to get a grip. Yes, she was touchy, damn it. It was her work, her life, and this whole project was new, something she had never tried before. Better change the subject. “I’ve got something else to show you, something you’ll like for sure.”

She went to the tiny storage space in the back of her store. “Come here.” To make more use of the limited space, she had installed two rows of shelves, one in front of the other. The front row was set on wheels that ran in guiding rails, so she could push it to the side whenever she wanted to reach into something beyond or get access to the bathroom door. With a flick of her wrist, she moved the front shelf to the side and reached into the cubicle behind.

Annalisa looked around. “It reminds me of a galley; no millimeter is wasted here.”

Caroline laughed. “Spot on. I got in a yacht builder when I set this up. He had great ideas.” She pulled out a flat cardboard box and opened it.

Her cousin chewed on her lower lip. “You know, I start to see why you find it so interesting.”

Well, that’s something at least.“You’ve seen nothing yet. Look here.” Caroline held out her hand.

“A pair of nylons?” Annalisa raised her slim eyebrows. “What’s so special about them?”

“They’ve been woven with the latest technology. They guarantee you’ll have no more runs.”

Annalisa’s eyes widened. Her fingertips touched the soft material. “No more runs?”

“Yes. Ricciarda and I tested it.” Caroline beamed at her. “It’s a special way of weaving that makes sure any small hole at the toe remains a hole and won’t create a run up to your hips.”

Annalisa blinked. “Are you telling me one pair of nylons will now last a lifetime?”

Caroline laughed. “No. It’s still a fragile material. But at least you won’t have to chuck them the minute a tiny hole appears somewhere.”

“Wow. That’s cool.” Annalisa put her head to one side. “But isn’t that bad for your business? I mean, people will buy less nylons if they don’t tear them anymore.”

“No.” Caroline smiled. “I happen to have the exclusive rights for these nylons in Florence. It took two months of hard negotiation before they agreed to the deal.” The memory still filled her with pride. “Even if eventually, the nylons will be available elsewhere, people will start to buy more expensive nylons now that they last longer, so for me, that’s fine.” She held out the package. “Here, take a pair. I’ll officially start to sell them tomorrow, but you’ll get a few hours head start.”

Annalisa’s face lit up. “Wow, that’s great. Thank you.” She slipped the nylons into her golden handbag and looked around the storage room. “You know, I think your business is quite fascinating after all.”

Caroline looked at her cousin with affection, her irritation almost forgotten. “Says the jaded almost-twenty year old who thinks she’s past the age of fun.”
Annalisa’s smile revealed a row of pearly teeth. “. . . and starving besides.”
How gorgeous she looks. Caroline made a shooing motion with her hands. “Back up. I’m done now, and we’ll walk to Gino’s.”

Annalisa obeyed with a shudder. “Walk? But the weather is dreadful.”

“It doesn’t rain, and after all these hours inside, I need a bit of air.” Caroline turned off the light at the back, leaving on the ones that illuminated the shop window. A sharp gust of wind tore at their jackets as they left Temptation.

“Brrr.” Annalisa hunched her shoulders. “Are you sure you want to walk?”

“The Vespa isn’t warmer.” Caroline locked the door and set the alarm. Temptation’s top location on Via de’ Tornabuoni was an attractive target for thieves.

Annalisa opened her eyes wide. “I’m not talking about your Vespa. Ever heard of taxis?”

Caroline took her cousin by the arm and walked her along the ancient houses toward the Arno river. Festive decoration glittered from the shop windows in the luxury stores at their side. “Oh, come on. You’re not made of sugar.” She took a deep breath. “This wind is invigorating, don’t you think?”

Annalisa gave her a look that spoke volumes. A sudden gust whipped up her red hair so that for an instant, she looked like a wild witch flying on a broom.
Caroline wrapped her scarf tighter around her neck. “Funny, I’d have thought there would be more people about, just a week before Christmas.”

“Not at nine o’clock in the evening.” Annalisa held back her hair with one hand. “Every respectable shop owner closed the door hours ago; only you insisted on staying late.”

“I still had to unpack the nylons. I hope for a great pre-Christmas rush tomorrow because I put ads in several papers.” Caroline dug her hands deep into the pockets of her red coat. “I’m so glad they arrived in time. They got held up in customs, and I was afraid people would storm Temptation tomorrow, and I have nothing to give them.” She grinned at her cousin. “And you talk about it being boring. It’s more exiting than a thriller.”

Annalisa laughed. “Yeah, sure.”

They reached the Lungarno Corsini and turned left.

Annalisa slanted a look at the Arno. “The water looks awful. So gray and dirty.”

Caroline leaned over the stone wall that separated the sidewalk from the steep embankment. Her gaze swept over the row of houses on the other side, taking in the mix of green wooden shutters, red tiled roofs, and the soft colors of the house fronts. Cream, faded terracotta, and soft yellow alternated, creating a mellow blend. Each house had a different height. Some were slim, crooked from age, some broad and feisty; some windows had arches, some grilles, some barren flower boxes. They looked weather-beaten, standing with clenched teeth in the icy wind, but they stood their ground, as they had done for centuries.

She smiled and turned her head to get her favorite view of the Ponte Vecchio bridge, loaded with shops. Additional rooms clung like fat beetles onto the back walls of the shops, hanging in precarious positions over the foaming water.

A feeling of tenderness swelled her heart, and she took a happy breath. “It’s no wonder the tourists are in rapture whenever they see the Ponte Vecchio. It’s so . . so Italian. This bridge could not stand anywhere else in the world.”

Annalisa lifted an eyebrow. “Must be because you’re half American. I see nothing special in it. It’s decrepit, that’s what it is.”

Caroline shook her head. “You only think so because you were born here. Isn’t it fascinating to think how unique it is because it grew with time and was constantly adapted to changing needs? Another bulging room added here, another layer of paint there, peeling off again, revealing the bridge’s age, and so making it irresistible?”

Annalisa eyed her. “If a bulging something and a peeling layer of paint is making me irresistible, then by all means, let’s buy a pot of paint.” She linked her arm through Caroline’s and dragged her away from the stone wall. “Come on, get over your romantic moment. It’s freezing, and even if you’re enjoying your fling with poetry, that doesn’t mean I have to get pneumonia.”
Caroline followed her cousin with a grin. “I wonder what it takes to make you feel romantic.”

“Easy.” Annalisa looked like a smug cat. “A bottle of golden champagne, a brand-new pair of flaming diamond earrings, and a whirlpool with rose leaves.”

“A whirlpool with rose leaves would get clogged up immediately.”

Annalisa gave her sharp glance. “Now who’s unromantic? Really, Carlina, I wonder about you. You start to rhapsodize over an old bridge that’s falling apart and give me a cleaning women’s remark when it comes to whirlpools.” Her high heels clattered over the uneven stone slabs. “Besides, they don’t. I tested it.”

Caroline stopped dead. “You tested it? Who has a whirlpool? And who was stupid enough to throw rose leaves into it? Don’t tell me Tonio treated you to a day in the spa. It’s not his style at all.”

Annalisa lifted her chin. “Tonio is history. Has been for ages.”

Caroline blinked. “You mean five days.”

“How do you know?”

“Six days ago, he had dinner at our house, and it didn’t look then as if he was history.”

“Oh, well.” Annalisa conveyed Tonio to the past with a careless shrug. “I fell in love. It’s different this time.” She turned away and crossed the street to reach the restaurant.

I’ve heard this before. Caroline followed her without a word.
“You don’t need to be so disapproving,” Annalisa gave her cousin a defensive glance. “He’s older . . . and . . . and different. He’s not a boy.”

“Hmm.” Caroline held open the door to Gino’s restaurant. “Come on in. You can tell me all about it while we’re having dinner.”

Twenty minutes later, Caroline inhaled the aroma of the rabbit ragout with gnocchi in front of her. “Just the right dish for a cold winter night.” She savored the first bite in silence and smiled. “The first bite is always the best, don’t you think?” Her cousin didn’t reply, but Caroline didn’t notice, filled with happiness. “I guess it’s because your taste buds are not yet used to the treat they get.”

Annalisa sighed and continued to nibble on her lettuce leaf. “Don’t tempt me.”
“Why didn’t you take the ragout as well?” Caroline frowned. “You’re not too fat.”

Her cousin clenched her teeth. “It has to stay that way. I have to be perfect.”

Oh, oh. Caroline blew onto her ragout to cool it and slanted an inquiring glance at her cousin. “The new lover is very demanding?”

“He isn’t.” Annalisa speared a piece of lettuce with her fork. “But I have a plan. A big plan. That’s why I won’t take any risks.” She took a deep breath. “I want him to marry me.”

Caroline dropped her fork. “What?”

Annalisa finished her confession in a rush. “He’s rich, and handsome, and . . .” she gave a wistful sigh, “ . . . so experienced. After him, I can’t ever go back to those young guys.” Her face twisted. “Besides, he needs to settle down.”

Her cousin swallowed. “Does he know that?”

“Not yet.” Annalisa’s face clouded. “I tried to give him a little hint, and he reacted a bit . . . strange.” She shook herself. “However, there are ways to overcome that. I don’t believe him at all when he says it’ll be over after the holidays. After all, he never met a girl like me before.” She pushed back a strand of her red hair.

Something sharp pierced Caroline. A man rich and handsome, here for the Christmas vacation, her beautiful cousin with red hair . . . She gasped and sat up straight. “Don’t tell me you’re lover’s name is Trevor?”

Annalisa’s mouth opened. “How do you know?”

“Madonna.” Caroline blinked. “Drop him, Annalisa. Right now.”