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"You're what?" Giorgio's gold pen dropped from his fingers and rolled forgotten off his polished wooden desk as he gripped his phone.
His sister, his baby sister, Stefania, giggled from four thousand miles away in New York City. "I'm engaged to be married." She repeated it in Italian to make sure he understood. "Fidanzata."
"But, but " he stammered, normally not at a loss for words. "To whom? And when?"
"Well " She drew out the news teasingly and then her excitement bubbled over in a rush. "His name is Dieter von Thalberg and we met a few months ago when he traveled here for business."
"Only a few months?" Giorgio interrupted. "And you want to marry him already?" Stefania was impulsive sometimes, but not foolish.
"Of course." She giggled again. "Oh, Giorgio, I can't wait for you to meet him." She lowered her voice. "He's German nobility from a little place in Bavaria. You have to trust me, I've never felt this way about any other man. When he kisses me and we well, anyway " He practically heard her blush as she continued the catalog of wonders that was Dieter.
Giorgio fought the urge to start an international incident over Dieter, his future brotherinlaw, for showing her the wide world of womanly delights. Giorgio couldn't think of it in more specific terms without his fine lunch of sausages and polenta sitting uneasily in his stomach.
He sighed and wished he had finished the rest of the bottle of wine rather than restraining himself to the two glasses he normally imbibed.
He hoped the man's ancestral holdings were overrun with mold and rats. But then Stefania would be unhappy, and that was the last thing in the world Giorgio wanted.
Actually, he hoped Dieter had some money of his own for the ancestral holdings and wouldn't constantly hit Giorgio up for loans. Giorgio had enough trouble with his own palazzo, molto grazie.
"But, Giorgio, you must realize none of this will be official until you give us your blessing. Dieter insisted it be so."
Hmm. He quirked his mouth. It was true. As ruling head of the Most Serene Principality of Vinciguerra, Giorgio had the right to approve or deny betrothals of members of the royal family, i.e. his sister, Principessa Stefania Maria Cristina Angela Martelli di Leone. It said so on his business card. Well, not really.
The only other members of the royal family were his grandmother, who at eighty was not expected to seek permission to wed again, and himself: Giorgio Alphonso Giuseppe Franco Martelli di Leone, Prince of Vinciguerra. Long ago, Giorgio had decided that if he never wed and had the requisite heirandaspare, he would pass the title to Stefania and her children. After all, he was an enlightened, twentyfirstcentury monarch. One with the power to send Dieter the Dunce packing. He snickered.
"Giorgio?" his sister asked nervously. "Are you still there?"
"Si, si." He lapsed into silence, pondering what to do and how many heavy items Stefania would hurl at his head if he refused her undoubtedly goldenhaired, Teutonic Prince Charming.
"Come to New York," Stefania commanded.
"Yes, now. I called Grandma today and she told me to get you out of her hair. She says you're driving her nuts." Having spent most of her childhood in New York, Stefania had a definite command of American idioms.
"What?" Giorgio sat bolt upright in his ergonomic Corinthian leather chair. "I am doing no such thing!"
"She begs to differ. She says you poke your nose in on her day and night so she can't get any rest."
Now he was insulted. Their grandmother had had a nasty bout of flu that had settled into pneumonia. After a couple touchandgo weeks of aroundtheclock care, she had pulled through but still needed nursing visits, respiratory therapists, physical therapists and doctor visits. And it was his job to make sure they were doing their jobs. He was more at ease if he could be present for all their consultations.
He reconsidered. Maybe that was a bit too much. After all, his grandmother had run Vinciguerra while he was off at university and had absolutely no trouble making her wishes known. He could also have his assistant text him updates on her health.
"Yes or no, George!" his sister shouted. She only called him his American nickname when she was either very pleased with him or very annoyed. No bets on which it was this time.
"Fine, Steve!" he shouted in return, his matching temper surfacing. "I want to meet this German Romeo who thinks he's good enough for my only sister. If he's not up to snuff, forget it! You can finish your master's degree instead. I'm not paying university tuition to have you moon over some man you barely know."
"He is not some man! He is my man, and I know him very well."
Giorgio gritted his teeth at her implication and forced himself to take several deep breaths. If he pressed his sister too hard, she was likely to elope to Vegas with the guy. "If you think so highly of him, Stefania, I will be happy to meet him."
"Fine." She sounded mollified, for the moment at least. With Stefania, you never could tell. "And I am finishing my degree, you know. If I take an extra course each semester, I'll be able to graduate next spring."
"That's wonderful news." He checked his schedule on his phone. "I can fly into New York Wednesday if that would work for you. And Dieter," he added grudgingly.
"Great! We'll meet for dinner Thursday, just the three of us."
"Great," he parroted, with much less enthusiasm. "I look forward to it."
"No, you don't, but thanks for saying so."
"Insincerity has its place, Steve. I would appreciate a tiny bit more insincere flattery from you, for example. 'Oh, my princely brother, if it pleases you to meet the unworthy specimen who has asked for my dainty royal hand in marriage.'"
She snorted. "If you wanted me to be dainty and insincere, you should have left me in Vinciguerra after Mama and Papa passed away."
"You know I couldn't do that, piccina mia" My little oneit was what their papa had called her, at least when she wasn't raising hell. Some things never changed.
"I know, Giorgio, and I love you for it."
He cleared his throat, which was developing a sudden lump. "I love you, too," he muttered. Words of love never came easily for him, even for his beloved sister.
"Ciao, Giorgio." She made a kissing noise into the phone and hung up.
He spun his chair to stare at the terraced vineyards beyond his office, the land still leafy and green in the April sun after a wet spring.
Springtime and young love. Giorgio's lips pulled into a wry smile. He remembered how romantic New York City could be in the spring. Unlike Stefania's Dieter, though, he had never been tempted to propose to anyone. He'd been busy with his education and bracing himself to return to Vinciguerra.
And now he would return to New York. It had been so long since he had been a foolish young student in the city. He straightened in his chair, the idea sounding better by the minute. He hadn't even had a free day in what seemed like forever, his every action in Vinciguerra witnessed and gossiped over by his loyal subjects. And to date any of them? unthinkable.
He grimaced and tried to roll the kinks out of his neck. It wasn't as if he had any free time to date anyone, Vinciguerran or not. He pressed the intercom to call his assistant. "Alessandro? Please make arrangements for me to join Princess Stefania in New York tomorrow." He rubbed the back of his neck. Stefania would give him grief if she thought he looked scruffy for her big dinner.
"Oh, and also make an appointment with my barber." Women always loved a fresh haircut.
"Renata?" Renata Pavoni's assistant, Barbara Affini, who was also her aunt, stuck her perfectly coiffed, poufy head of black hair into Renata's workroom.
"Hmm?" she mumbled around a mouthful of straight pins as she pinned the white satin hem of a wedding dress. The dress dummy stood on a carpeted platform, high enough that Renata didn't have to crouch to work with the fabric.
Barbara tsked and came into the room. "Your mama would have a fit if she saw you like that. If you swallow a pin, I'm going to call your brother's firehouse to take you to the hospital and you'll never hear the end of it."
Renata spit out the pins and stuck them into a tomatoshaped pincushion. "Okay, okay. Hey, how does this look?"
Renata sighed. Why did she bother asking? It was the same answer every time. "It's supposed to be short, Aunt Barbara. It's a vintagestyle wedding dress." Nineteenfifties and sixties fashions were hot as hell, thanks to several hit TV shows and movies set in those time periods.
"Your cousins' wedding dresses, now those were classics," her aunt reminisced.
Renata pulled a face, glad her aunt was behind her. Her petite cousins had rolled down the aisle in dresses wider than they were tall, looking like those plastic doll head and torsos on top of crocheted toilet paper holders. Thank God wedding dresses from the eighties were still out of fashion. She'd go broke buying miles of satin and tulle and pounds of sequins.
Why had she hired her aunt? Oh, yeah, her uncle Sal had begged Renata to get his wife out of the house. She needed someone to mother once their youngest married, and the newly retired Sal wasn't about to volunteer for the vacancy.
Plus, Barbara was a fantastic seamstress and put the p in punctual.
Renata finished pinning the hem and stood, her knees popping. "The bride is coming in for her final fitting tomorrow. Will you have time to hem this?"
Her aunt sniffed. "Child's play. I even have time to add some sequins on the skirt if you'd like?" she asked hopefully.
Renata shook her head. "No sequins." Her client was an avowed hipster and would bite the sequins off with her teeth before wearing them down the aisle.
"How about some whiteonwhite satinstitch embroidery?" But her aunt knew when she was beaten, her plump shoulders already slumping.
"Sorry." Renata was sorry. Her aunt would like nothing better than to handbead, handsequin and handembroider a gigantic ball gown with a twentyfoot train. But customers for gowns like that didn't come to Renata's design studio, Peacock Wedding Designs.
Instead, the dress in front of them was pretty typical of her salesa fiftiesstyle vintage reproduction with gathered halter straps and a fullcircle skirt complete with a tulle crinoline. The bride was planning on a short, wavy fifties 'do and a small satin hat with a tiny net veil to drape over one carefully madeup eye.
Renata smoothed the skirt and carried it into the alteration workshop for her aunt. She caught a glimpse of herself in the threeway mirror and sighed. She loved vintage clothing but it sometimes didn't stand up to the modern workday. Her ivory linen blouse was wrinkled and her navy pencil skirt had twisted around her waist so the back slit was somewhere along the front of her thigh. She patted her auburn hair back into its nineteenfortiesstyle roll.
Her aunt noticed her selfgrooming and finally smiled. "You look just like old photos of my dear mamma, God rest her soul."
"Thanks, Auntie." She blew her a kiss and fixed her skirt. She probably needed to touch up her lipstick, too. While lush red lips were historically correct, they did require more maintenance and she had to be careful that she didn't trip over her feet and plant a big red smacker on her pure white fabric. The things one did for fashion. Or at least her grandmother's fashion.
Renata hopped onto the elevated chair at her design table. Before she could uncap her cherryred tube, the phone rang. "Peacock Wedding Designs, this is Renata."
"Hi, I've been looking at your website and I was wondering when I could come in to look at your dresses." The New York voice was young but confident, typical of her clientele. Brides who wanted a vintage look were not shrinking violets.
Renata flipped through the appointment calendar. "We can see you Friday."
"Are you free tomorrow afternoon?"
Renata wrinkled her nose. She'd been planning to take the afternoon off for the opening of a new art exhibit at a gallery in Manhattan. Her friend Flick knew a couple of the artists.
Her potential client hurried on. "I want my brother to come with me, and he's flying into town tonight."
Business was business, and maybe Brother was paying for the dress. "No, that's fine. What time is good?"
"Great." Maybe she could see the opening after allit started at two. "And your name?"
"Stefania di Leone." She had a perfect Italian accent when she pronounced her name.
"Ah, Stephanie of the Lion." Renata laughed. "My full name is Renata Isabella Pavonipeacock. That's where I got the name for my salon."
"I think your designs are wonderful," Stefania enthused. "I looked in the bridal mags, but everything there is too overthetop. I don't want a gigantic, poufy dress, or a corsetslip that looks like I forgot to put the rest of my dress on. And don't get me started on the mermaid style. I want to be able to dance at my wedding." She ended in a plaintive note.
Renata penciled her name into the calendar. "I'm sure you can find something you love. Have another look at my website and jot down some styles you'd like to try on." She gave Stefania directions to her salon in Brooklyn. Renata wished she could afford space in Manhattan, but even marginal neighborhoods there were exorbitant.
But Stefania didn't seem fazed. "My brother and I will see you tomorrow. Oh, I'm so excited! My first time wedding dress shopping!"
That could be good or bad, depending on if she made up her mind quickly or liked to browse. either way, it was an opportunity. They said their goodbyes, and Renata hung up.
Barbara appeared in the doorway again. "Who was that, dear?"
"A bride is coming in tomorrow at noon to look at the dresses."
Her aunt made a disappointed face, her penciled eyebrows drooping. Since Renata had planned to take the afternoon off, her aunt made an appointment for Uncle Sal's annual colonoscopy. Lucky Sal.
"I'll be sure to keep you posted. And who knows? She may want a little more embellishment on her dress."
Barbara brightened. "That would be wonderful! I have lots of ideas."
"Great. Write them down. Or draw them."
She made a dismissive gesture. "Renata, you know I can't draw worth a lick."
"Ask your granddaughter Teresa to draw it for you. Isn't she a good artist?"
"Oh, well " Her aunt fluttered her fingers at her bosom. "I'll have to see my ideas probably aren't very good."
"You won't know until you try." Her aunt was a product of her times, discouraged from attending college and encouraged to marry straight out of high school. It was about time her aunt focused on herself instead of her family. Her family would be grateful, too.
"But I can hem that dress. I know I'm good at that."
"You are indeed." Renata gave her an encouraging smile and checked on the selection of samples she had in stock. Kickass. Her new bride would love them.
Unlike her aunt, she didn't have any doubts about her abilities. Renata loved vintage clothing, but she sure didn't have a vintage attitude.