With a practiced smile, Clara opened the door for the man to whom her husband owed his life. “Mr. Abruzzi! So nice of you to drop by.”
It wasn’t nice, which Mr. Abruzzi knew: surprise visits to his beneficiaries were how he ensured his investments were behaving. A stone-faced male aide followed in Mr. Abruzzi’s wake.
Abruzzi shed his coat; the aide handed it to Clara. Her hands shook as she hung it. She hoped they hadn’t noticed.
“You have a lovely home, Mrs. Leoni.” Abruzzi’s gaze swept the chandelier, the antique sideboard, and the matched wingback chairs, all kept obsessively clean. Clara often imagined how their next home might look: a tiny loft in France or Brazil, with mismatched and often dusty furniture, far more homelike than this gracious apartment.
“Thank you,” she demurred. She poured his favorite wine from a bottle on the sideboard. “Marco should be home at any moment.”
“Normally he’s returned by now.”
Did the watchful aide notice her tremor as Clara handed Abruzzi the glass? “He’s heading up a new project. Longer hours.”
“Complimenti.” Abruzzi lifted his glass in a brief toast. “And his legs continue to perform?”
“The machinery is incredible,” Clara admitted.
It had seemed miraculous at the time: a philanthropist who’d heard about Marco’s accident and wanted to help them pay for the cutting-edge prosthetic legs. The payment plan was simple, he promised, the interest nominal – this isn’t Sicily, after all, he said with a wink.
Yet somehow the Leonis owed still more money, no matter how hard Marco worked, how clean their house was, how much Clara flattered Abruzzi on his visits. It took them months to admit Abruzzi owned them, and months more to plan their escape. Clara could only hope the pieces would come together soon.
“I’m curious about this new project.” Abruzzi lowered himself into one of the wingback chairs. “Such a…promising venture for the two of you.”
“It is.” She sat in the window seat, letting her skirt swing around her legs as she crossed her ankles. They’d learned over the course of Abruzzi’s visits that he preferred her in skirts.
She entertained another brief daydream of the future home, the dusty, cramped, wonderful one. In this home, she wore sweats.
What was keeping him?
The street two stories below was packed with commuters. Bicycles whirred past, dodging cars and pedestrians. Clara often wondered if anyone passing by had been a beneficiary of Mr. Abruzzi; if they were subjected to stressful visits and left sleepless for nights afterward, wondering if the expensive procedures Abruzzi had funded would ever be paid off – and what would happen if they weren’t.
“Here he comes.” She stood a little too quickly, but she’d spotted Marco’s distinct silver bicycle, his glossy dark hair catching the golden-hour sun.
She greeted him at the door with a warning smile and the customary kiss. He knew the look; he touched Clara’s cheek reassuringly as he passed her.
“Mr. Abruzzi!” All faux machismo, he shook Abruzzi’s hand roughly and slapped him on the shoulder. They’d learned Abruzzi responded well to such displays. “What can we do for you today?”
“Oh, I just stopped into say hello. I understand you have a new project at work.”
“Yes, it’s a new cyber-security platform – very exciting stuff.” He looked apologetic. “But Clara and I have an engagement tonight…”
“Of course!” Abruzzi gripped Marco’s shoulder. “I won’t keep you any longer. I simply wanted to check in. Josef!”
The aide strode past them to open the door for Abruzzi. Clara handed him his coat and forced a smile as he kissed both her cheeks for a little too long.
“Buona notte,” he said, smiling thinly.
Once the door was safely shut, she scrubbed her cheeks with her skirt hem. “Will this new project keep you late often? You know I hate having to entertain him alone.”
“You’ll never have to entertain him again.” Marco drew two envelopes from his backpack. “This is why I was late: visas. Brazil.”
“You got them?” she whispered. “I thought it would take weeks!”
“I’m sorry I couldn’t tell you, but I couldn’t risk Abruzzi noticing anything. We can leave tomorrow.”
“What about your work?”
“They’re happy to have me work remotely.”
“And we can really leave tomorrow?” she breathed.
“Really. Abruzzi won’t be able to touch us.”
She saw herself in sweats, breathing tropical air, unwashed dishes in the sink and laundry unfolded on the couch. “Then you’d better help me pack.”