RETURN TO MONTE CARLO
My husband is four hours late for our first anniversary dinner.
Every second that passes, my guts twist tighter and tighter, and it’s harder to breathe. I can’t let it show on my face. The in-laws would be too pleased.
So instead, I examine a vase, an Etruscan reproduction from the seventeenth century. It’s beautiful, and an heirloom, but I don’t know which branch of my husband’s venerable family bought it off the black market.
Before I married into old money, I thought folks like the de Noli family would never dirty their hands, but as it turns out, crime is rampant in Monte Carlo, it’s just no one ever gets caught, and once you’ve gotten away with it, no one cares if you showcase your stolen goods on a Connemara marble pedestal in the east salon and rig up a special light to shine down on it twenty-four hours a day.
My mama would hatch an egg if she knew there were folks who left lights on all day and all night, even when no one’s in the room.
The salon is full now. The whole household is here except Marco and my father-in-law. They’re stuck at the office again. Marco’s pitch-perfect PA rang to let me know earlier, right before we sat down to dinner. Her tone conveyed nothing but polite regret, even though she would know that today is our anniversary. As I’ve been told a hundred times, Sienna is indispensable to the operations of de Noli International. She knows what every day is.
My guts twist, and my lungs ache. I feel like I’m dangling over the side of the Grand Canyon by a yarn hair tie, the kind I wore as a girl that seemed made to unravel.
If I’d reminded Marco that it’s our anniversary, he’d have made sure to make it home on time. When he woke me and sat on the edge of the bed, scratching his effortlessly sculpted abs that never fail to mesmerize me, I could have mentioned it, but I didn’t.
I was limp and blissed out—and still reeling from what he’d done the night before—but still, I had a working brain cell. I could have told him I’d planned something special.
The awkwardness at the table was my fault, as is the tension now thickening the air as the minutes tick past with no sign of my husband. I didn’t have to make tonight a test. I did this to myself. And why?
I don’t know. It feels like how you can’t help but stick your tongue in the empty socket after a tooth is removed, that kind of irresistible bad idea.
And I got what I was asking for, didn’t I?
A minute-after-minute, hour-after-hour drubbing so obvious that I can no longer ignore the truth—the man I fell in love with a year ago doesn’t want me anymore, at least not enough to come home from work, and I’m going to have to dangle here, humiliated and miserable, until I can politely excuse myself to bed.
I shiver and cross my arms, pacing around the vase to pretend to admire it from a different angle. A chilly breeze is coming off the Mediterranean tonight, wafting the scent of flowering mimosa and cigar through the open French doors.
My brother-in-law Ric is out on the dark terrace, probably ogling my ass as he puffs on his cigar and regrets an evening wasted at home. His wife Chiara must have insisted that his presence was required. I suppose it is a special occasion, although even among blue bloods like the de Nolis who live in each other’s pockets, I doubt anniversary dinners with the in-laws are all the rage.
All week, I kept waiting for Marco to mention plans—or rather, for Sienna to call me with the details of the reservations she made—but Monday turned to Tuesday turned to Wednesday, and my hopes shrank each day until I couldn’t stand my own skin.
Yesterday morning, I threw some water on my face, vowed to stop moping, and decided I’d plan a celebration myself. I’d do something to remind Marco of when we fell in love in Dallas, and if the entire de Noli clan would inevitably be along for the ride, well I’ve learned that’s par for the course when you marry into a family that has a half dozen homes, each with its own name. You’d think they’d spread out some, but I don’t think they’d know what to do without their noses up in each other’s business.
“I think the beef would have been improved with a touch less vinegar,” my mother-in-law declares from her seat on the white velvet settee, apropos of nothing. Sometimes I think that Mama would be most amazed at how the rich have white upholstered furniture. With six children, Mama never brought anything home that couldn’t hide a multitude of sins.
Chiara jumps in like she’s just been waiting for Vittoria to start the critique. “I think the dinner would have been improved with a different entrée. Asking a French chef de cuisine to do an American barbeque is just—” She waves her hand in a vague way.
She’s looking for the word tacky. That’s what she wants to say. Chiara was an Italian starlet with a fast reputation before she snared Ric de Noli, and that’s not much of a pedigree around these parts, so she’s always careful to imitate Vittoria’s elocution when we’re all together, and my mother-in-law would never say tacky. At least not in English.
“Peu judicieux,” Vittoria intones.
“Mal avisé,” Chiara agrees in the tone they always use with me. It’s not blatantly critical. Marco would never countenance that, and they know it. Even though he’s never around, they wouldn’t dare disrespect him by putting his wife down, especially in front of staff, and Morty, the man of all work who is more family than either Chiara or me, is always puttering around somewhere.
He’s behind the bar now, unobtrusively wiping down the marble, the white hairs sprouting from his dish-sized ears tuned in for gossip like antennae.
“I would be more than happy to advise you on the menu next time you’d like to do a taste of home kind of thing for my son.” Vittoria lifts her cigarette holder, and Morty scurries from behind the bar to offer her a light. She takes her time inhaling and exhaling.
Nonna Rosanella, who has settled herself into her usual seat beside the settee, clacks quicker with her knitting needles, stoically disregarding the moisture that gathers in her deep-set eyes as she’s enveloped in a cloud of smoke. Rosanella is Grandfather de Noli’s second wife, and since she never had any children, she has to play second fiddle to her stepdaughter Vittoria. She wouldn’t say shit if she had a mouthful, as my mama would’ve put it.
“Perhaps if we attempt it again, we can find a dish more compatible with the European palate, eh?” Vittoria flicks her ash into the silver standing ashtray, and Chiara raises her empty glass up for Morty to collect on his way back to the bar.
I take another step so that the vase and pedestal fully block me from the rest of the salon. The night breeze gusts at my back, tousling the curls I spent the afternoon fussing with.
I left my hair down tonight. Marco likes it that way. He loves barbeque, too.
Back in Dallas, he couldn’t get enough. On the weekends, he’d drive us out to little podunk towns in the middle of nowhere on the word of some associate who swore there was a place that had the best barbeque you’ve ever tasted. We were never led astray, and every time, Marco swore the barbeque was, in fact, the best he’d ever had while he dabbed pretend sauce from the corner of my mouth with one of his linen handkerchiefs just as an excuse to touch me.
I was so foolishly impressed by linen handkerchiefs.
Maybe it’s better that he failed the test. What if he’d actually made it home? The barbeque was awful, and I would have had to be agreeable and smile, and I don’t think I can do it anymore. I experiment, focus on drawing my lips up and back, but all I manage is an eye twitch. Good thing I’m hidden by the vase. I probably look crazy.
“I wouldn’t be too hard on myself if I were you,” Chiara says to me. “I was out of my depth, too, when I became a de Noli.” She laughs, a high-pitched brittle bray that sets Vittoria’s teeth. “Of course, I had the advantage of being familiar with the lay of the land, as it were, but really, all it takes is effort. Vittoria is here to support you if you only ask.”
Vittoria inclines her head in regal agreement. Rosanella’s needles go clickety-clack, even faster.
Over the past twelve months, that’s become the story—I am a recalcitrant outsider, the American gold digger who refuses to acquire any polish at all. The family is ready and eager to help me adjust, but I won’t let them. I won’t even try.
It’s not that no one told me about the beach club soirée, it’s that I declined to attend. It’s not that between Vittoria and Chiara, everyone in Monte Carlo thinks I’m an avaricious rube who tumbled off the turnip truck with her boobs falling out. I’m just a hopeless case, a typical blonde airhead, vain and self-absorbed, and when visitors come by, I’m always out shopping or at the beautician.
That’s not untrue. I shop a lot. I discovered right quick that if I wanted to preserve even a scrap of my self-esteem, I couldn’t spend my afternoons sipping an Aperol spritz while Vittoria and her cronies talk about me in French, or sometimes, for variety, Italian. I might not know what they’re saying, but the tone is clear as day.
I’ve tried to explain to Marco, but every time I start, he waves me into silence, and declares, “Family is family.” I’m not sure how I’m supposed to take that exactly, but for him, it means the conversation is over.
He used to coddle me a little after I tried to talk about his family, maybe have Sienna reserve us a table at the beach club for dinner, but somewhere along the line he stopped bothering. He’d say family is family, and then he’d go have a nightcap alone in his study, and maybe fall asleep there so I’d be up all night worrying, cold and sorry with a stomachache.
I crept down to his study once, terrified to wake the staff, with half an idea to make him listen to me. He was passed out on his leather sofa, legs dangling over an arm, snoring softly as if he didn’t have a care in the world.
“So what are you ladies talking about in here?” Ric’s mentholated voice booms behind me, and I startle, coming within a hair’s breadth of knocking the pedestal over. My heart jumps up my throat.
Ric chuckles. “I didn’t frighten you, did I?”
He claps his hands on my shoulders, squeezes a touch too hard, and as he drops his hands, he makes sure to smooth his palms down my back and almost, but not quite, brush the top of my butt cheeks.
He’s intimidated by Marco like everyone else, but he’s also drunk, and when he gets drunk and big brother isn’t home, he gets handsy. There is a line he won’t cross, and as best I can tell, it’s the tan line that crosses the top of my butt cheeks.
“We’re talking about dinner, love,” Chiara answers, accepting a refilled wine glass from Morty without even looking in his direction.
Ric shudders. “Let’s leave the barbeque to the longhorns from here on out, shall we, Diane? François is simply not up to the challenge. I’m going to have to go to the club later for a good steak. I need a palate cleanser.”
He’d be going to the club later regardless. He’s checking his watch now.
Chiara must notice the move because she scoots over and pats the cushion next to her. “Join me, darling.” She snaps her fingers. “Monty, freshen him up, would you?”
Monty shuffles out from behind the bar again, this time with a brandy decanter. Ric sighs, but he obliges, sinking down next to his wife and holding out his empty snifter in an idle hand.
I should be feeling something other than twisted up and suffocated, shouldn’t I?
It’s my anniversary. My husband didn’t even ring to say he’d be late. My in-laws are taking turns sniping at me, and even a few months ago, I’d be racing out of the salon, covering my face with my hands, knowing that Vittoria would be mouthing to Chiara, “Was it something we said?” while Chiara rounded her eyes and shrugged her shoulders like she’s playing charades.
I should be furious. Devasted. Panicking. But it’s like something in my brain has shorted out, and I’m here, but this isn’t me.
Of course, it isn’t. There is a nineteenth-century crystal chandelier hanging over my head, and a natural pink diamond on my ring finger. This can’t be real.
I want to go home. Gene Autry, Oklahoma isn’t much, but I was never lonely there. I wasn’t wrongfooted all the time. I could breathe.
My eyes focus on the tableau on the vase. Apollo is chasing Daphne, wings sprouting from his back. Daphne is fleeing, her mouth gaping in horror. She’s almost to the river, reaching for her father, the river god. I pick the vase up and turn it so I can better see Daphne’s arm where it morphs into a laurel tree.
Across the salon, Chiara gasps.
A sewing needle clatters as it hits the marble floor.
“Diane, what are you doing?” Vittoria’s mouth gapes in horror, too.
Monty freezes where he stands behind the bar. Ric raises a hand as if he’s calming a horse, but he remains seated with an ankle crossed to the opposite knee, his white chinos raised enough to flash the bare, hairy ankle above his white leather loafer.
Why are they so upset? I’ve just picked up the vase to take a closer look. Unlike the rest of them, I haven’t had a drink tonight. My hands are steady.
I blink up at the vase, and slowly, I realize that I’m holding it rather high, almost like I’m offering it up to the gods. It must look strange. I should put it back down carefully. Laugh it off.
I’m not really sure why I picked it up. I could have bent closer. But it’s like my arms aren’t attached to my body. Nothing is attached. I’m a brain, short-circuited and floating, tethered to a bloated, twisted rock-filled stomach.
Marco doesn’t love me anymore. Maybe he never did. Real love wouldn’t die so quickly.
“Madame, if you would please set it back on the pedestal, it’s only that it is a very valuable piece, and—” Monty’s words trail off as if they’ve been strangled by his rising alarm.
He so rarely speaks to me that it takes a second for it to register that I am the madame he’s addressing, and during that pause, Vittoria snaps. For the first time since Marco brought me back here and dumped me on her front step like a flea-ridden stray, her mask completely falls away.
“Put that down now,” she spits from between gritted teeth. “I know you think you’re expensive, Diane, but that vase is priceless, and your name is going to be mud if it gets even the smallest thumbprint on it. Mark my words.”
I don’t drop it. I swear I don’t, but somehow, I watch it slip out of my fingers in slow motion anyway, so easily, without any friction at all.
I don’t do anything, it’s just that my hands stop holding on, and before my brain can scream no, the ceramic hits the marble, and it shatters. Slivers fly, catching in my nude stockings. A piece of rim skids across the tiles. Fragments splay in a blast radius around my toeless beige pumps.
Rosanella lets out an unholy wail.
My arms fly up like the police said to put ’em in the air.
Ric whistles low and intones, “Holy shit.”
“I didn’t mean to do it,” I whisper into the chaos breaking out in the east salon.
Monty stabs the button on the wall that rings for the maid on duty, and when she doesn’t show immediately, he hollers, “Maria!” When she doesn’t immediately appear, he switches to “Anna!” while huddling in the safety of his station behind the bar and gawking bug-eyed at the scene unfolding before him.
Rosanella hobbles over as quickly as she’s able and falls to her knees in a crackling and creaking of joints, weeping as she sweeps shards into her gathered skirt. Tears stream down her ruddy cheeks, and a faint twinge pierces my numb heart. She’s never done anything to me except pretend I’m not there, and I can’t say she treats anyone except Marco any differently.
Vittoria rises to her feet, draws herself to her full height, straightening her spine and thrusting her pointy chin in the air. “How dare you?” she booms.
For Chiara, the question is a starter pistol. She crosses the room in three long strides to hover over Rosanella and wrap her arms around Rosanella’s humped shoulders while she spits venom at me, her slender neck craned like a buzzard’s. “You vindictive bitch! You absolute piece of work! Why would you do that?”
I don’t answer. I can’t.
My silence is fuel to her fire. “And you wonder why your husband can’t stand to be around you, why he stands you up on your own anniversary? I’ll tell you since everyone else is too polite. It’s because the allure of cheap sex and big blonde hair and bouncy tits wears off quickly enough, and trash stinks no matter how you dress it up. The bloom is well off the rose, but what does that bother you if you’ve got your credit cards and spa days? It doesn’t, does it? Your husband is miserable—he’s working himself into the ground—and what do you care?”
“Chiara, stop,” Vittoria interjects, majestic as she quivers with rage, even her nostrils. “She is not worth your breath.”
My stomach heaves. What have I done? How did I make such a mess of everything?
Chiara rises above Rosanella like an avenging angel in an electric-blue wrap dress. “I cannot wait for Marco to throw you back on the heap of garbage where he found you, puttana.”
Her face is flushed, and so close to mine, I can see the clumps of black mascara and the little lines where eyeliner bled into her foundation. Her breath is hot on my skin, reeking of cigarettes and gin, and my stomach pitches again, sloshing wildly back and forth, while my brain unspools her words one by one.
Can’t stand you. Miserable. The bloom is off the rose.
“It’ll be any day now,” she says and draws her bright fuchsia lips back, her smile dripping with spite and certainty. “And I can’t wait.”
I don’t know how it happens. My arm rises, it swings, and my palm cracks her cheek. Her head jerks to the left, twisting on her thin swan’s neck.
What did I do? I’ve never slapped anyone in my life. I grab my stinging hand and clutch it to my chest.
“What the hell is going on here?” a deep, resonate voice sounds from the door, and the room freezes.
Rosanella is on her knees at my feet, weeping, shards collected in her gathered black skirts. Chiara is beside her, cradling her red cheek. Ric holds the cigarette he just lit. Monty stands behind the bar, paused in the act of stabbing a call button with his index finger.
Vittoria is the centerpiece of the tableau, standing with her arms raised for some reason, the full sleeves of her emerald green caftan dangling so that she looks like Christ the Reedemer on his mountain above Rio.
“Diane has lost her mind!” Vittoria proclaims.
Marco strides into the salon and stops by the grand piano. Behind him, Anna and Maria, the maids, Grandfather de Noli, and Sienna, the perfect PA, file in and fan out, gawking in shock at the scene.
And like it always does, every single time I see Marco de Noli, my whole body comes alive, my pulse, my heartbeat, my breath.
In an instant, I become exquisitely aware of every inch of my skin—my stinging palm, my flaming cheeks, my tight throat, my quivering belly. The friction between my nipples and the lace balconette bra that Marco loves to tug down to free my breasts and then leave bunched around my middle as he takes me whichever way he wants. The seam of pantyhose rubbing the damp gusset of my matching lace panties.
I don’t want my body to do this. I thought it’d ease over time and with familiarity, but it hasn’t. Every sight of Marco hits me like the first. It makes me stupid.
Marco is just so much larger than life. He’s tall and muscular, but not freakishly tall or ripped like the kind of bodybuilder you’d see at Venice Beach. In a way, he looks like any good-looking Italian man—rectangular face, strong jaw, dark eyebrows, darker eyes. His chin is a touch clefted, and his deep brown hair is prone to tousle if he goes too light on the pomade.
He’s definitely a striking man, but even so, I’ve been asked out by men who would be considered much more handsome. I’m not vain, but men have always liked my looks.
Marco de Noli, though, is more than the sum of his parts. He has an almost supernatural air of authority that makes people look to him, that makes people listen. It’s not charisma, but people are drawn to it. They want to please him. Follow him.
We were at the theatre once, and in the second act, the fire alarm went off, and the house lights didn’t come on. There was an awful stink of burnt wires coming from the vents, and everyone was panicking, but when he told people where to go, they went without question. Even before he started giving orders, people were looking to him. They just knew he’d get them out, and he did, even though he’d never been in the building before.
It turned out to have been a small electrical fire that smelled worse than it was, but I’ll never forget that feeling of security. I wasn’t scared because Marco was there, and Marco de Noli is no ordinary man. The normal rules don’t apply to him. I only have to think about last night. What he did. What I let him do.
Sometime during this last year, as I realized how much of a stranger he will always be, the thrill has taken on a menacing edge. It doesn’t make me feel safe anymore. Sometimes, it scares me.
Like now. His face is like thunder.
“Diane?” His voice, though, is careful and measured. Dread trickles down my spine.
“She slapped me!” Chiara supplies when I don’t immediately reply. “She actually put her hands on me!”
“See here, Marco.” Ric clears his throat, finally rising to his feet. “We can’t be having this. It’s not at all the thing.”
Ric goes to Chiara’s side, and they both turn to Marco, prevailing on the head of the household to do something about me.
I must be having a nervous breakdown. I raised my hand to Chiara, and I’m standing in the shards of a priceless family heirloom. I’ve made Rosanella weep.
This cannot be me. I’m a good girl. Unlike my oldest sisters, Heather and Melissa, I never caused my mother any grief.
Stiff-backed and slump-shouldered, as if this is just one more hassle in a long day, Grandfather de Noli shuffles to the bar. When Monty can’t drag his eyes from the unfolding scene, Grandfather de Noli leans over to pluck a bottle and glass from the counter, perches on a stool, and serves himself.
“Now you see what she’s like,” Vittoria declares, which is crazy because I’ve never done anything like this before in my life. Marco must know that.
Still, I can’t bear to meet his gaze. The shame claws, tearing stripes out of me. I huddle where I stand in my lilac cocktail dress with the matching belt and buttons that run down the front from the neckline to bottom hem. Lilac and silk because they’re Marco’s favorites. A-line and tea length so Vittoria won’t make comments. Buttons because Marco loves to undo me. The belt for the things he likes to do once he’s stripped me naked.
I force myself to look him in the eye. I trust him. Things haven’t been good, but I haven’t really forced the issue with him either, and he always says he’s swamped at work, and it can’t be easy, running a multinational private concern, all that weight on your shoulders, and now your wife has gone crazy and attacked your sister-in-law and destroyed a real-life historical artifact of incalculable value.
My vision blurs, but I don’t hang my head. I let the love that’s still inside me shine. Although it’s battered and uncertain, it’s no dimmer than when he proposed to me under the covers in my twin bed at my efficiency in Dallas. It’s still bright enough that it feels like everything.
I search his gaze, but it’s cold and hard and impenetrable. No hint of shine. There never is these days, except in bed, and with only the moon streaming in the window, I’m never quite sure if it’s a trick of the light. My heart sinks.
“Diane,” Marco says. “Go to your room.”
Your room. Not ours.
I haven’t been sent to my room since grade school, and even then, it was because I was getting blamed for something Heather or Melissa did.
“Now.” Marco’s tone brooks no argument. It’s the one he uses with staff. No, it’s the one he uses with Fidelio, Vittoria’s greyhound.
I squeeze my hands into balls and firm my chin. I can’t see well. Everything’s hazy through the sheen of tears.
I step carefully over the shards and walk past Rosanella and Vittoria. Chiara shrinks back as I go by, even though I give her and Ric a wide berth.
Sienna stares at me boldly as I pass, but Maria and Anna avert their eyes. Morty and Grandfather blank their faces like I’m a mess that the staff has been alerted to, best ignored until it can be swept away.
My heels tap across the foyer until they’re muffled by the carpet running up the marble stairs. Voices don’t burst out in a cacophony until I’m on the second-floor landing. Marco probably kept them quiet that long with only the forbidding cast of his jaw. I hurry up the next two flights. I don’t want to hear my crimes enumerated.
My stomach’s doing something strange, wobbling like a Jell-O mold. As soon as I reach the master suite and the bedroom that Marco and I share—our room—I sink down on the edge of our four-poster bed. I fold my hands in my lap like I’m twelve again and have been sent upstairs to think about what I’ve done.
I’ve made a terrible mistake marrying Marco de Noli.