EPILOGUE: In Which She Makes 3 Minutes Count
“Mummy, ask me again. Ask me again.”
“Okay, okay,” I said, feeling slightly frazzled as I pulled the cake out of the oven. I set it on the marble counter before turning to look down at Mickey. “Capital of...Madagascar? Take your time with this one.”
He closed his eyes for a few seconds before opening them again and announcing proudly, “Anta...” He paused. “Antana...I don’t know how to pronounce it yet, but you know what I mean, right, Mummy?”
“Antananarivo,” I said slowly. “Yes, pet. Mummy always knows what you mean.” I ruffled his unruly mop of coal-black curls. “Why don’t you go upstairs and change?”
He wrinkled his nose. Mickey hated anyone messing with his beloved hair. “Okay.”He scampered out the kitchen and left me to clean up while waiting for the cake to cool before putting it on a platter and icing it.
The candles came next – eight, big blue ones that stood proudly in the centre of the chocolate cake. I opened the big tube of Smarties and elaborately placed them around the candles before standing back to admire my handiwork. I still got a tad bit sentimental every birthday.
And who can blame me? I thought. After all, I nearly lost him once.
I shook my head. Today wasn’t going to be one of my nightmarish reminiscing days. Today was going to be filled with joy and irritating family members and plenty of cake and booze.
“Looks good enough to devour right now,” Jules’ voice came from behind me, cutting short my mental pep talk.
I smiled and turned around. “You were supposed to get here earlier.”
“I know, I know,” she said, squeezing herself into a chair at the table. “I woke up late and Charlie...well, you know how Charlie is. Time is a figment of the imagination with him.” She dipped a finger in the icing bowl and brought it to her mouth. “Where’s the birthday boy, anyway?”
“Upstairs. Miraculously, I didn’t have to fight him out of that dreadful Ben 10 costume.”
“Hey, my husband bought that with love.” She grimaced.
“What is it? Is everything OK?” I asked anxiously.
Jules nodded quickly. “Everything’s fine. Your nephew’s going to be the next David Beckham, is all.”
I laughed, reaching down and placing my hand over her ever-expanding belly. “God forbid.” As if he’d heard me, Charlie Jr. kicked in agreement. “And where is my tardy brother?”
“Oh, he’s outside with Adam, setting up the jumping castle,” Jules said, forgoing her fingers and grabbing the spatula out of my hands. She promptly scraped up the remainder of the cream.
“I have no idea who’s going to get on it, seeing as how Mickey specifically said that he doesn’t want any other children over.” I shook my head with the memory of that particular conversation. “Really, Jay. He came up to me the other day and informed me that he wants family only. What sort of eight-year-old doesn’t want other screaming eight-year-olds at his birthday party?”
“Mickey Donafrio?” Jules offered in response. “The boy’s a genius, Dani, and geniuses are bizarre. Remember when he could barely say two words? Now what? He’s memorising the Bible, the Encyclopaedia Britannica and the telly guide. I could barely read the fúcking cereal box when I was eight!”
“His teacher keeps saying we might have to enrol him into one of those special academies for gifted children. Would that be too much too soon?”
Jules shrugged unhelpfully. “I don’t know, babe. I’m only having my first baby. You should discuss it with –”
“Signora?” A voice interrupted her.
My eyes swivelled to the doorway. “Yes, Theresa?”
“Your parents are here and Alessandra broke Signore Adam’s iPhone.”
I sighed. “Oh, Allie. Third one this year,” I muttered to myself. “Jules, living room. Can you waddle there?”
“Very funny,” she replied dryly, pulling herself to her feet. “I’ll have you know that I could just pop right now, but that won’t stop me from kicking your arse if you so much as say the w-word again.”
“Good to know,” I said, laughing as I led her to the living room.
“Dani, there you are,” was my mother’s greeting. She folded her arms across her chest. “Your father bought Mickey a laptop. A laptop.”
“He doesn’t have to use it now,” my father protested, giving me a slightly affected look. “Fiona got him a toy. Mickey doesn’t even play with toys.”
“Oh, right, but I suppose he’ll reprogram the computer software and hack into the Scotland Yard?”
If I still lived in my old house, I’d have pulled my hair out in five seconds flat with the sort of bickering that seemed to be a given whenever my two sets of parents got together under my roof. Fortunately, there were about twelve other rooms I could retreat to if their behaviour persisted.
“Fiona,” Jazz said soothingly, “I think that’s enough.” She shot me an apologetic look. “Hello, Danielle. Jules.”
“Hi,” we replied in unison.
“And Michael, I’m sure Mickey will appreciate anything his grandparents get for him, don’t you think?” said Elizabeth, lightly brushing my father’s arm.
“And where’s my naughty little girl?” I asked, and Theresa scooped the writhing girl out of her hiding place under the coffee table and handed her to me. “You’re getting far too heavy to carry, Allie sweetheart,” I said, balancing her on my hip. She stuck her tongue out at me, a horrible habit she’d picked up from Jules. “Where’s Uncle Adam’s mobile, baby?” I asked her.
“I don’t know,” she replied, but the cheeky look on her face told me that she most certainly did.
Adam himself appeared in the doorway, a Coke in hand. “Jumping castle’s up, no thanks to Charlie.”
“Adam, why do you insist on giving her your mobile?” I asked him, shaking my head as Allie pulled the phone out the front of her dress. She handed it to me for examination. “She’s cracked the screen. Another one bites the dust.”
Adam reached out for it. “She looks at me with those big, chocolate-brown eyes and it’s you begging for the last waffle again. I can’t refuse. It’s those satanic eyes.”
“I never liked waffles, Adam,” I told him, placing a kiss on my daughter’s nose.
“Well, you used to beg for something.”
“The last cookie in the jar,” Mum piped up. “I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised that someone with such a sweet tooth would’ve opened a coffee shop.”
“I want a cookie,” Allie said animatedly. “Please can I have a cookie?”
“You can say that again. I’m starving,” Jules said, finally plopping onto the couch and kicking her strappy sandals off. “Crap. My ankles look like a hippo’s thighs.”
“Fishing for compliments, are we?” Charlie said on his way in, nicking the can from Adam and downing it in one gulp. “Your ankles bring sexy back, Julesie-Woolsie.”
“Aw, someone’s definitely getting some tonight,” Jules told him, blowing him a kiss.
“Excuse me while I puke out my entire stomach contents and entrails,” Adam remarked dryly. “Oh, and by the way, Dani – Gio and Mia send their apologies. Mia’s first Lamaze class is today and Gio’s her partner.”
I smiled, imagining domineering Mia and her sweet little brother working together on something. Mia had finally decided to go through with IVF treatment and was now in her second trimester.
“Can’t believe she got Gio to go,” I told Adam, before turning my attention back to the rest of my family. “Drinks are out by the pool. Theresa, be a darling and open the patio door? Thanks.”
“Let’s get your cookie, cara,” I told Allie, heading out the living room. She wriggled out of my embrace until I was forced to set her on the ground. “All right, all right. No running.” At four-years-old, Alessandra favoured scurrying about as a pastime. “Alessandra, stop,” I called out when she completely ignored me and dashed down the passageway. “Allie! You’re going to hurt yourself!” I
The front door was pushed open and Allie stopped in her tracks on her way to the kitchen.
“Are you an angel? Come ti chiami, signorina?”
Allie giggled. “Alessandra.”
“What a beautiful name, cara mia. Aren’t you going to give Papà a kiss hello?”
Carlo placed his briefcase on the ground and bent to pick her up.
“And just like that, she’s well-behaved,” I commented, smiling when she rained kisses on her father’s face.
Carlo kicked the door closed behind him and met me halfway. “She’s always well-behaved.” He was putty in her little hands.
“I bet if she burnt the house down, you’d give her a cookie for a job well done.”
He leaned in and briefly pressed his lips against mine before pulling away. “Are you jealous, bella mia?”
I laughed, watching him set Allie back down on the ground. She instantly darted away. “Stop being ridiculous.”
Carlo’s arms looped around my waist as he pulled me into him. “I missed you.”
“I missed you, too,” I said, pressing my nose into his chest and inhaling his scent. “I didn’t think you’d make it.”
“Neither did I. The turbulence was ridiculous. But I’m here now.” His hand cupped my rear. “I hate business trips.”
“How about we go upstairs and I show you just how much I missed you?” I asked, tapping my fingers against his chest.
His eyes darkened. “That sounds –”
“Papà!” Mickey exclaimed, appearing out of nowhere.
I pulled away from Carlo and allowed Mickey to jump into his outstretched arms.
“You are too big for this, mio figlio,” Carlo chuckled. “Happy birthday.”
“Mummy’s big and you carry her,” Mickey observed. “Thanks.”
“Hey, I’m not big,” I griped, rumpling his hair.
Mickey groaned. “Okay, Papà. You can put me down now.”
Carlo obliged him.
“I won’t ask what you brought me because I’m just happy you’re here,” Mickey proclaimed boldly, before turning on his heel and shoving his hands into the pockets of his jeans.
“I feel like he’s the parent sometimes,” Carlo remarked, shaking his head. “When did that happen, cara?”
“I don’t know about that,” I said, “but if you don’t carry me upstairs for a quickie, I know I’m going to explode.”
“Hmmm,” Carlo mused aloud, running the pad of his thumb across my bruised bottom lip, “and we can’t have that, can we? These tiles cost a shítload.” His hand strayed across my braless chest and I felt my nipples harden. The noise from the rest of the house just seemed to fade away.
Carlo’s hands could give me the most infinite pleasure; salve our children’s bumps and scrapes – but they could also take a life. The reminder of that small fact was imprinted on Carlo’s left shoulder. I wasn’t aware that I had pressed my palm against his shoulder, over the scar I knew was under his shirt, until he squeezed my left breast and I snapped out of my trance.
“I’m sorry,” I whispered, retracting my hand. “It’s morbidly funny, but I was thinking – I shot your right shoulder and Angelo shot your left. I love you for surviving.”
His brow furrowed, as it always did whenever his dead cousin’s name came up. “The difference is that he didn’t know how to shoot his way out of a cardboard box...” He angled his head to kiss me “...and you do.”
“Actually, I don’t want to talk about him. Ever.” The recurring memory of Carlo twisting the madman’s neck was enough of a reason not to.
“Certo. How long do you think we have before Alessandra wants to cut the cake?” Carlo murmured, cupping my face in his hands.
“Oh, about three minutes?” I figured, knowing that when it came to cake, our daughter never cared whose birthday it actually was.
“Then we definitely have to make those three minutes count,” Carlo said huskily, and he picked me up, throwing me over his shoulder caveman-style.
This time, I didn't scream. I liked the view.
~FIN~ 5 Best Chinese Romance Books of 2018 So Far