—Peter Pezzelli, author of Home to Italy
Valentina DeLuca has made hundreds of brides’ dreams come true. At Sposa Rosa, the Astoria, New York, boutique where she, her sisters, and their mother design and sew couture knock-off gowns, she can find the perfect style for even the most demanding customer. Now, it’s her turn. Valentina has loved Michael Carello ever since he rescued her from a cranky shopkeeper when she was ten years old. He’s handsome, chivalrous, and loyal. And in a few weeks, she’s going to marry him—in Venice.
But just when she thinks everything is falling into place, Valentina is forced to re-examine her life to see what truly makes her happy. And as she soon learns, in a place as magical as Venice, what seems like misfortune can turn out to be anything but, although who knows what may be waiting around the next corner? The chance to enjoy a moonlit gondola ride, to sip Prosecco in St. Mark’s Square, to eat mouthwatering gelato, to put aside “sensible” for once and see where the warm Italian breezes guide her as she visits all the sights she’s dreamed of: The Doge’s Palace, Il Rialto, the little islands of Murano and Burano. And maybe, along the way, to discover that bella fortuna—good luck—isn’t what you’re given, but what you make.
“Chiofalo brings the Italian immigrant community and neighborhoods richly to life.”
“Well-drawn characters . . . A charmer.”
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By ROSANNA CHIOFALO
KENSINGTON BOOKSCopyright © 2012 Rosanna Chiofalo
All right reserved.
Chapter OneUnlucky 13
I've never considered myself very lucky. Maybe it has something to do with my being born on Friday the 13th and one day shy of Valentine's Day. For a long time, I've been convinced that my birth date is the reason why I've been so cursed in love. And my being named after the patron saint of love, St. Valentine, when I've had nothing but agita in romance just makes it more painfully ironic. Agita is what Italians call grief of the worst kind. To top it off, my mother is very superstitious and believes in the dreaded malocchio, or evil eye, even though it's 2010. Malocchio is when someone puts a curse on you. And many Italians are fervent believers in the mighty power of the malocchio. But none of that matters anymore since I've finally met "the one."
Thinking about this and how my luck has changed, on this cold Sunday morning, I walk out of church. January in New York City is definitely not one of my favorite months. But as every New Yorker knows, the frigid temps don't stop you. The streets are the quietest on Sunday mornings, my favorite time to be walking through Astoria, the Queens neighborhood where I grew up and still live.
The attendance at the eight a.m. Mass at Immaculate Conception is usually low—too early for most people to get up on the weekend. Even though it's a drag to get myself out of bed, I still go through this weekly ritual. It's meditative for me. It's not often one can go somewhere in New York City without running into a crowd so you have to grab your quiet moments when you can. Sunday mornings are when I can hear myself think best. Even though it's just slightly above the freezing mark, I take my time walking home.
The shops that do open on Sundays are slowly coming to life. Several joggers pass me on their way to Astoria Park. Dogs are trotting along, immune to the nip in the air.
Anyone who knows me will tell you that I love to people-watch, and New York City is a great place to do it. Probably nowhere else in the world will you encounter as many people from different ethnic, socioeconomic, and religious backgrounds—well, except for at an airport!
The aroma of fresh baked bread from the Italian bakeries reaches my nose. Through the windows, I spy a few old men already sitting at the bakeries' tables, sipping their cappuccinos and reading La Corriere della Sera newspaper. As I step through the doors of Antoniella's Bakery, I spot Paulie Parlatone's S-shaped receding hairline behind his newspaper.
Paulie is known as "the Mayor of 35th Street" or "Il Sindaco" for his meddling in everyone's affairs on my block. He has no idea he'd been christened with this nickname, just as he has no idea that he talks too much. The irony isn't lost on everyone that his last name, "Parlatone," means "big talker" in Italian. Paulie will stop you in the street and grill you to the point where you finally surrender and tell him your personal business just so you can end the conversation more quickly.
The worst is when he shows up at your house unannounced. He often comes to my home right after dinner, asks my mother for a toothpick, and makes himself just as comfortable as if he's sitting in his own house. While he talks to us, he picks his teeth with the toothpick. And no matter how well you hide your dirty laundry, nothing gets past Paulie.
I quickly walk by Paulie's table at Antoniella's, praying not to be noticed.
I keep walking, pretending I can't hear amid the din in the crowded bakery. Already there's a line of customers, waiting to get their Sunday Danish, croissants, and biscotti. I try to hide behind the Shaquille O'Neal dead ringer who stands in front of me on line. But not even the man's tall figure disguises me. A finger taps me on the shoulder.
"Valentina! Didn't you hear me?"
"Ohhh, Paulie. I'm sorry. I'm a bit preoccupied, and with the noise in here, I guess I didn't hear you." I give him a faint smile.
"Always thinking! That's been you since you were a little girl. Remember the time you almost hit me while you were riding your bike? You were staring right up at the clouds. I had to whistle to get your attention."
Of course I remember that day. It's true, I did like to daydream a lot as a kid. Sometimes, I wish I had hit him—nothing too serious—just enough to shut him up for even a second.
"Well, enjoy your day, Paulie." I return my attention to the pastry display case, pretending I still haven't made up my mind as to what I'm ordering.
Paulie doesn't seem to notice or care.
"So where are you off to?"
"I'm going to the shop."
"You're open today? Sposa Rosa's never been open on a Sunday. Are you losing money?"
I picture myself on my childhood bike, hitting him head on— again and again.
"No, business has actually never been better, especially after the feature Brides magazine did on us a few months ago. I have to finish my wedding dress, and with the store being as busy as it is, the only time I get to work on it is late at night or on Sundays."
"Of course! Of course!" Paulie slaps his forehead. "How could I forget? Our little Valentina is finally getting married. You know I was beginning to get a little worried for you."
Oh, how I wish I were on that bike right now—no, make that a car instead.
"Paulie!" I laugh through gritted teeth. "I'm not the only woman in New York to have waited to get engaged until she was in her thirties!"
"I know. I know. But I just couldn't understand why no one had snagged you sooner. You're such a pretty girl with a good head on your shoulders."
Apparently, Paulie's definition of shoulders is different from mine since his eyes rest on my breasts. I forgot to mention that Paulie is also a perv. He rarely misses a chance to ogle a woman's boobs.
"I was just picky. There aren't enough good men out there."
"May I take your order, miss?"
The salesgirl saves me.
"It was nice talking to you, Paulie. 'Bye!"
I place my order for Palline di Limone biscotti and even throw in a few assorted mini Danish so I can talk to her longer, hoping Paulie will leave me alone.
It works! Paulie walks away.
"Hey, Valentina!" He stops, returning to my side.
"Have I told you I can't wait to spin you around the dance floor at your wedding? Oh, wait! You're getting married in Venice. That's too far. I won't be there."
Thank you, God, Mary, and all the blessed saints in heaven! I nod sadly, belying my true thoughts of elation. Then I look down into my purse as I search for my wallet. I know I'm being rude, but I don't care. Paulie has been rude toward my family countless times. He finally leaves the bakery, picking up one of the complimentary toothpicks on the counter.
I breathe a sigh of relief. Choosing to get married in Venice was the best decision I ever made. I put Paulie as far away from my thoughts as possible, and focus on returning to the meditative, blissful state I was in before I ran into him.
After leaving the bakery, I pass Anthony's Salumeria. My mouth waters as I spot Anthony slicing prosciutto—my favorite Italian cold cut. Unable to resist, I walk into the deli and order half a pound of the salty meat along with a block of sharp provolone.
"Good morning, Valentina!"
"Hi, Anthony! How are you?"
"Can't complain. I'll be out of here by noon. The Giants are playing so I've got that to look forward to."
Anthony always gives me the first slice of meat to sample even though I know he carries nothing but the freshest products.
"Hmmm! Still the best!"
Anthony smiles. Sometimes, I think he goes through this ritual more for his own sake than mine. He just can't resist hearing his cold cuts praised.
Although I am used to the sights and sounds of the neighborhood that has been my home since I was a child, they seem more vibrant today. The bread at Antoniella's Bakery smells particularly heavenly. The froth threatening to spill over from the patrons' cappuccinos looks thicker, and the prosciutto at Anthony's is the sweetest ever. Even my three-carat emerald-cut diamond engagement ring sparkles brighter today.
Yes, it's the start of a new year, and finally I feel like this is going to be my year. After designing and sewing wedding dresses for other lucky brides-to-be for so long, it will now be my turn to shine in the spotlight. In just five months, on June 14th to be precise, I'll be marrying Michael Carello in my favorite city in the world— Venice.
I had secretly admired Michael since I was ten years old. Michael was thirteen, but even though he was three years older than me, he always said hi and tried to make me laugh. Popular at school and in our neighborhood, Michael and his family lived around the block from me, so I often saw him playing football or hockey with his friends on my street.
He has blond hair and blue eyes, defying the dark southern Italian stereotype. He takes after his mother. Iva Carello is beautiful even now that she's in her late fifties and is often told she resembles the deceased Princess Grace of Monaco in her twilight years. His father, Joseph Carello, also poses a striking figure, with intense black eyes and a full head of hair at sixty. He always wears a suit, and on his days off from work, he still wears trousers with a button-down shirt, minus the tie and jacket.
Michael has definitely inherited his parents' sense of style. Even as a kid when he wore jeans or got dirty playing sports, he always looked good. It's hard not to notice Michael. But what really branded my devotion to him was when he had come to my defense at Li's Grocery Store when I was a kid.
I passed Li's Grocery Store every day on my way to school. My mother sometimes bought a few groceries there. It wasn't a real supermarket in the sense that you could get your week's worth of shopping. Mr. Li, a Taiwanese immigrant, owned the store and never had a smile for his patrons. Maybe that, along with its limited stock, was why hardly anyone frequented the store. But Li's did have an aisle full of cool school supplies like pretty binders with flower or fairy patterns, spiral notebooks with sparkly glitter covers, Hello Kitty pencil cases, and my favorite—Strawberry Shortcake erasers that smelled like strawberries, of course.
Every afternoon when I walked home from school for lunch, I would stop by Mr. Li's to eye the stationery I couldn't afford. I always politely greeted Mr. Li, who acknowledged me even if it was just a stern "Hello." So I was shocked when one day he yelled at me as I was leaving the store.
"You! Yes, I talk to you. What you have in pocket?"
I froze as if he had a gun cocked right at my head.
"I say what in pocket? Take hand out."
I took my hands out of my powder-blue, faux-fur-trimmed coat, holding my palms up to show him they were empty as I whispered, "Nothing."
"You come every day. No buy anyteeng. Why?"
"I was just looking."
My heart was beating as fast as my cat Gigi's after my mother had thrown her heavy clog at him for stealing food off our table when we weren't looking.
"Hey! Leave her alone! She didn't take anything!"
I hadn't even seen Michael and his best friend, Sal, standing at the register. Utter humiliation washed over me as my face flushed, resembling the color of the half-rotten pomegranates that lay in the boxes at the front of the store.
"She here every day. Hide in back. Teenk I no see. I no idi-uht. She never buy anyteeng. She steal."
"I know her. She would never steal a penny. It's a free country. She can come in here and look without buying anything. Just because she doesn't buy your crummy stuff doesn't mean she's stealing."
Mr. Li frowned and glanced at me again. I lowered my eyes to the floor.
"It's okay, Valentina. Come on, let's get out of here."
Michael placed his arm around my shoulders, leading me out. I could feel Mr. Li's gaze burning a hole through the back of my head as if he was trying to read my mind, still questioning if I'd somehow stolen something and had cleverly hidden it.
Once outside, Michael turned to Sal. "Give us a minute. I'll catch up with you in a second." Sal nodded his head and walked toward school.
Michael removed his arm from my shoulder and bent his head lower so his eyes met mine. I stared at the ground, wishing I could shrink to the size of the ants that were crawling around the broken pieces of bread that someone had thrown to the pigeons.
"Are you okay?"
I nodded my head. "Thanks," I managed to mutter in a tiny voice.
Michael patted my arm. "Don't feel bad. You hear me? You didn't do anything wrong. You're a good girl, Valentina. Mr. Li's a stingy jerk. He once wouldn't let an old lady who was short a quarter walk out of there with a loaf of bread. I gave him the quarter. What a creep."
I just nodded my head again and continued to look down at the cracks in the sidewalk.
"Well, I gotta get back to school. My lunch break is almost over. But if you want, I'll walk you home."
I shook my head. "No. That's okay. Thank you."
"Don't sweat it!"
I turned and began walking home.
I stopped and looked over my shoulder, still not meeting Michael's worried gaze.
"If anyone ever treats you like that again, just tell me. I'll take care of them for you."
I finally managed to smile at him. He winked at me and then turned around, running to catch up with Sal.
That wink was all it took to make me fall completely in love with Michael. After that day, every time I saw Michael he always winked at me after he said hello. It was as if he knew its power. For with that one wink, I felt myself soar high above the sky, dancing in midair with the birds. Now my childhood fantasies of wedding my prince someday were replaced with dreams of marrying Michael.
And that was how my crush on Michael began. But I had to watch helplessly over the years as he dated one girl after another. When I turned fourteen and puberty finally decided to pay me a visit, filling in my flat chest and narrow hips, Michael still seemed to look at me as if I were that ten-year-old kid whom he'd rescued. I'd noticed his friends staring at me a few times when they thought I wasn't looking, but not Michael. Unlike his friends, his gaze always met mine rather than my boobs, which were already a C-cup at that point. But something had changed in how he treated me. He no longer winked at me after he said hello. In fact, he didn't even try to make me laugh, as he'd loved to do when I was younger. I didn't get it.
So I started dating, having one miserable relationship after another or not having a boyfriend when important occasions arose like a friend's Sweet Sixteen party or my sophomore-year dance. My best friend, Aldo, had gone with me to the dance. I could always count on Aldo when I needed a date. So I'd put on my best poker face and pretended I was having a blast with him when all I could think about was, Why can't I have a boyfriend for longer than two months? Why can't I have a boyfriend here with me instead of my best friend?
Of course, Michael still wound his way into my thoughts, but not as much since he'd left for Cornell University. I only saw him when he came home for breaks. I was beginning to accept the fact that he'd never have any interest in me as anything more than a childhood friend. I was the little sister he never had, nothing more. Yet from time to time, my mind still wandered to him, wondering what he was doing.
"Swaying room as the music starts ... strangers making the most of the dark."
Madonna's "Crazy for You" was playing. I loved this song. I felt a hand on my shoulder and turned around.
"Hey! What are you doing here?"
"I heard the music from outside. I couldn't resist coming in and catching up with some old friends and teachers."
"They let you in?"
"Of course! Why not?" He winked at me.
Oh my God! He hadn't winked at me in years. It still had the same bone-melting effect on me.
"Come on. Let's dance." Michael took my hand, leading me to the dance floor. My heart was racing so fast, I was convinced he could see it. He pulled me close to him as we slowly danced to the music. He rested his chin on my shoulder. I swallowed hard. I should probably make some conversation. But all I wanted to do was close my eyes and listen to the words of Madonna's "Crazy for You."
"Isn't this such a great song?" Michael pulled his head back and looked into my eyes, smiling.
"You like this song, too?" I asked incredulously.
"Yeah, it's one of my all-time eighties favorites, right up there with The Cure's 'Just Like Heaven.'"
"Oh my God! I love that song!"
Excerpted from Bella Fortuna by ROSANNA CHIOFALO Copyright © 2012 by Rosanna Chiofalo. Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON BOOKS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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