If Italy ever stopped being a fascist wasteland for one summer, he’d like to take Sylvia to the Vatican to christen her into a saint. He’d pay however much, beg for however long. It wouldn’t take much on the Great Above’s part to magic her into more of a saint than she already was, given her work tonight.
The thing was, this was all because of her. And that wasn’t a bad thing, not at all. If his father had disrespected him in front of his associates, he would’ve scoffed, mentally called him a fucker, and left for the buffet in search of a drink.
But to hear him call Sylvia a whore of whom he had lowered his standards to pursue, he almost shot the bastard. Shot him twice in the head and once in the heart, then, if he hadn’t been tackled by Campo’s men, proceed to cut him up with a knife he’d steal from a passing plate of cheese and crackers.
“You’re all sick, you know that?”
To say “yes” to him without fear of consequences. God, the rush. It stroked his fragile ego to think he’d finally silence the fuck who almost programmed him to be as lowly as he was.
Bless Sylvia for reminding him that he was better than that.
They trekked around the whole opposite side of the house to avoid bumping into Severo again. Vincenzo had needed a full symphony to calm down. His bloodlust drained the more time he spent with her, and parading around this mansion with their masquerade masks on whilst avoiding his father…
“Like cops and robbers, aren’t we?”
Vincenzo turned to Sylvia smiling at him. If not a saint, perhaps a mind reader. “We better not be the coppers in this scenario.”
“I wouldn’t want to be the robber.”
“Well, you did rob me of my heart.”
He didn’t know how that could’ve sounded stupider, but Sylvia sucking in her red lips to keep from laughing definitely stabbed the very heart she’d stolen. He was glad his mask covered most of his hot face.
They circled back to a lounge where nobody was really lounging. They stood and clinked their glasses together, gossiping the night away with faceless strangers. He knew almost everyone here and hated them in different ways. Some feared him, others called him a girl behind his back and other derogatory names. He’d dealt with them personally, but now he just wanted to find a quiet place with his lover.
They crossed paths with a butler carrying Campari with lemon wedges. He called for two glasses and gave one to Sylvia.
“He can just carry alcohol like this?” Sylvia asked.
“No copper’s going to squeal on him. He’s paying off most of New York to keep quiet. The rest are too scared to say anything.”
“My.” She took a sip. “These men are truly something else. I feel so out of place.”
“Don’t be. You’re outshining every woman here.”
“I wouldn’t say that. At all.”
“Why not? What happened to that charming confidence of yours?”
“Like the Moon, it waxes and wanes. One moment I feel like the tallest person in the room, the next I want to hide behind you and pretend I don’t exist. I feel daring, dressed like this outside of the Black Kitten, but I’m definitely noticing how…different I look, compared to these women.”
“Different how?” he questioned. “Whichever mood you find yourself in, know that I think you outshine everyone, regardless of how you’re dressed.”
“Well, aren’t you the romantic tonight.”
“Like you said, it waxes and wanes.”
They walked down a hall overlooking the water. Across from the windows was an on-going card game beneath a life-sized portrait of Campo’s niece, Gabriella. They had a game of rummy going, and among the men, holding one-third of the deck, was a sweating Luis.
“How unfortunate,” Sylvia said as they gravitated towards him.
“Fifteen minutes and he’s already down.”
“Is he that unlucky?”
Luis shakily placed down a two on his neighbor’s set, but two turns later, that same neighbor ended the game and scooped up his winnings.
“Damn it!” Luis slapped his cards on the table. “One more go, just one more.”
“He’s just lousy at cards,” Vincenzo said.
“Now that, I can’t relate to.”
His ears piqued. “Are you a gambler?”
“I don’t bet a lot, but I do enjoy playing.”
“I didn’t know that.”
Luis’ mood suddenly shifted from depressed to jovial as he saw them. “Hey, Sir! Where’d you run off to? Don’t tell me you were off with your date, ‘ey?”
Vincenzo waved him out of his seat, then gave it to Sylvia and pushed her in. He wanted to call her bluff. He’d never seen her play cards before. It didn’t seem like her scene.
“Good evening, Mr. DiFiore,” the dealer said. “Is the lady playing tonight, or are you playing together?”
“That’s up to her, but it’d be best if—”
As the dealer dealt out the cards, Sylvia quickly hid her hand against her chest. “I wouldn’t mind playing against you, Dear.”
Luis whistled. “What a card, Miss. Knock him dead!”
Vincenzo instinctively went to explain the game to her, as he’d never seen a woman confidently play against a table full of men, but before he could reorder his own cards, she fanned out a trio of queens.
Two men at the table oohed. The other one said something Vincenzo thankfully didn’t hear.
“Look at that, Vinny,” one of the men said. “You got yourself a card, haven’t you?”
“It’s still early,” one man was quick to point out, and started his turn.
Not giving him the time of day, Sylvia played like a professional against amateurs. She devoured all the aces. The tens had no chance. Her points racked up as the men’s looks turned from admiration to befuddlement and even anger.
Vincenzo didn’t know how she did it, but she somehow predicted each one of his turns. She’d give him this look that fluttered his heart, then pick the right card at the right time and destroyed his potential winning blow.
With nearly ten cards in his hand and the deck almost gone, Vincenzo fell back with a chuckle. “Well, darn.”
“You have to bring this gal around here more often,” one man said to Vincenzo.
“I never knew she was this good,” he confessed. “How’d you get like this?”
“Oh, you know,” she said. As it swung back to her turn, she ended the game by placing the final king on Vincenzo’s set.
Even though he lost, he grinned at her triumph. If he’d known about her love for gambling, he would’ve played cards with her at the Kitten. How many dates could’ve gone by like that, her having fun, him praising her, them around all her friends? They didn’t have to play for money, either. Just playing with her would’ve been enough.
“Lucky girl,” the dealer said, and dealt out her winnings.
Sylvia stared at the two ten-dollar bills being shoved her way. Campo must’ve visited the bank that night. They were crisp and smelled like him.
“Is this all for me?” she asked.
Two of the men grumbled incoherently.
Vincenzo took the bills for himself and helped Sylvia up. “Let’s go get you another drink. Excuse us, gentlemen.”
“I’ll take the next hand!” Luis said. “Let me sit here. It’s the lucky seat.”
Wanting to be far away from that table, Vincenzo led Sylvia outside to his favorite balcony.
He didn’t have many favorite balconies, but this one was picturesque enough to be a contender. He’d discovered it years back during another congested party. While beautifully orchestrated, they consisted of too many men and women he was expected to indulge. He’d escaped here one night to catch his breath, then kept coming back with excuses to smoke or clear his head.
The night tempted him to run back inside and retrieve their jackets. The Moon hung just above their heads and sparkled the water with stars. Down by the water’s edge sang river frogs and night bugs, dueting with the jazz music inside.
Sylvia leaned over the railing with her eyes closed.
Vincenzo caught himself staring and pressed his shoulder against hers.
“It is.” He popped open his breast pocket and returned the two bills to her. “I didn’t like the way they kept looking at you. If they saw you taking their money, it might’ve set them off.”
“They did seem a bit odd.”
“They’re shitty men with shittier morals.”
“I thought you got along with them.”
“You have to be nice to men like that. It’s the only way to get up in the world. So, how’d you learn to play so well?”
“I count cards.”
“I used to watch games on my breaks at the Black Kitten. After so many years, you get bored with playing by the rules. You want to branch out into riskier games.” She dropped her head onto his. “Do you still want to leave?”
“Hm.” He leaned over so his lips were inches away from her temple. “I’m not sure anymore. If my father stays out of my way, I’ll be fine. Certain party atmospheres I can deal with. Like—” He went to catch himself but couldn’t. “Take the Black Kitten, for example. If it’s not too busy, I do enjoy having a drink there.”
His heart picked up a little. “You know, these parties are fun and all, but the Kitten has with it a society that’s…different. The people are different, the tastes rawer.”
The truth fizzled back into his heart. He could tell her. It was his choice, but he chose to keep that secret away from her. Just a few more months and he’d tell her the real reason he enjoyed the Black Kitten. Once he was ready. “I just like it, is all,” he concluded. “Sometimes, I wish I was there rather than here, with no obligations or work to do, but you’re here, so I can breathe easier.”
Sylvia nestled her head against him like a baby bird. “Vincenzo,” she purred. “My Love, you’re making me swoon tonight.”
He hoped so. He didn’t know why he was trying so hard to capture her heart when she’d already captured his. It must’ve been because of his father and what he’d said to him, but he didn’t want that to be the case. He didn’t want his actions to dictate how he lived.
He licked his lips and leaned over to kiss her, and with everything and everyone behind him, he loved that he didn’t have to move. He didn’t have to do anything tonight that he didn’t want to. He could stay like this for hours and only worry about her running out of breath. Hopefully, to warn him, she’d give a little tug on his hair or bite his lower lip.
He opened up her mouth with his.
He pulled back.
“There he is, though he seems busy. Let’s leave them be.”
He covered his mouth. He’d left the balcony doors open a crack and, between the two, Campo d’Antonio was watching them with a crowd.
“S-Sir.” He smoothed out his hair and blazer. “I apologize. I didn’t know you were—Did you need something?”
Campo came out with his entourage, a mix of men and women wearing black masks. They watched him like curious crows.
“Good evening, you two,” he said. “It’s nice to see you again, Ms. Belmonte. How’re you finding yourself?”
“Oh, it’s, uh, wonderful, Sir. Thank you again for inviting me.”
“You’re welcome every year.”
Vincenzo wiped his lips of lipstick and took out a small box from his back pocket. It was a watch he found in Manhattan that had Cd’A carved into the gold. He handed it to Campo. “Happy birthday, Sir. This’s from me and Sylvia. Here’s to another fifty more years.”
“Just fifty?” He air-kissed Vincenzo’s cheek and accepted the birthday gift. “Thank you. Have you found your seats yet? I want you sitting next to me this evening. You’re his anchor for tonight, Ms. Belmonte. Make sure he doesn’t leave early.”
“Oh.” She nodded hesitantly. “Of course, Sir, Although,” she added, “although, I have been feeling a bit faint, so—”
“Dear, is everything alright?” he asked, actually concerned because of course he’d be. “If you’re feeling unwell, please, by all means, don’t push yourself to stay here. I’m sure Vincenzo would be right cross with me if I made you stay.”
“I’m sure he wouldn’t, but thank you. I just don’t want you to think ill of me if we, say, suddenly disappeared without notice. Vincenzo wanted a chance to say happy birthday to you if and when we leave.”
“How considerate.” He took a drag from his cigarette. “If you do stay, Vincenzo, I’d like to hear your voice tonight before the main courses arrive.”
Vincenzo choked on his collecting spit. His voice? Was he serious? Had he heard about his argument with his father? Was this punishment for acting out, or for showing public affection with Sylvia? And which was worse: getting caught acting childish or coquettish?
“Uh, right,” he said, “uh, sure. Not a problem, Sir.”
“Marvelous! Now, I have another question for you. Have you happened to see any of my grandchildren tonight? I’m looking for my lovely Gabriella, but she’s nowhere to be found.”
A door slammed somewhere upstairs, followed by a shriek of a young child.
“Ah!” He pulled up his trousers and left for the doors. His crowd shadowed him. “I always say that if you can’t hear a child, you’re in danger. Anyway, I’m glad to see both of you again. Dinner’s in one hour, so make sure you find your seats! I can’t wait to see your performance!”
He said more, but Vincenzo tuned him out. “See your performance?” Now? In front of Sylvia? He wasn’t ready. He’d hadn’t practiced in weeks. She’d only laugh at him again.
When they were alone, Sylvia asked, “You okay?”
He shook his head and downed the remainder of his drink.
Sensing that he needed it, Sylvia gave him her glass.
He finished that, too.
“You need more,” she guessed.
“I have about ten minutes to get as drunk as God will physically allow me, and even then, you know, I can keep going.”
“Good thing we’re at a lawless party. Let’s go find our seats before I lose you.”
“And even then,” he reminded her.
“And even then,” she said, and hooked her arm around his as they re-entered the party.