My wife and I were talking and she told me this was her favorite chapter. I think the reason is that she likes how I hold her hand in the middle of the night while we’re asleep. Once again, you have my sincerest apologies that formats don’t translate perfectly in WordPress.
Uncle Owen was true to his word. For over a month his nephew toiled in the olive orchard and earned his keep. Every meal was served promptly during the breakfast, lunch and dinner hours and everyone was expected to attend. At first it was a shock to the younger man’s system. For so long he had lived recklessly. Never once did he miss his life in Key West. He did however miss his friends. They occupied his thoughts constantly as he worked and sweated amongst his family, including Sylvio who always looked upon him with a jaundiced expression.
Owen took pride keeping his body in shape, but after a few days of labor almost every muscle he had ached. His cousins enjoyed giving him a hard time about it, but eventually he gained their respect by not letting the pain slow his work. They ultimately compared him to his uncle, who years earlier had gained the reputation as the hardest worker on the plantation. It was refreshing to accept the favorable comparison to a relative.
Julia returned to work with her family’s bank in town. They owned several small depositories throughout Tuscany. After university she began working as a teller. Over the course of several years she had been employed in every job in the bank, including that of a runner who delivered paperwork from branch-to-branch. Her eagerness as well as her amicable disposition endeared her to everyone. Both of their hectic schedules left little time for them to be together, and when they were most of it was spent as Julia rubbed away the aches in Owen’s back.
Tension between Sylvio and Owen escalated. It began with Sylvio’s caustic sense of humor displayed from the outset of their relationship. The two never really hit it off and the longer they avoided each other the deeper their resentment became. During work days they refused to make eye contact whenever they passed one another. Luca tried to intervene once to no avail. The most awkward times were spent at the dinner table. By choosing the seat he had the first night Owen was fated to sit near his cousin at every meal. He was afraid to ask for help for fear he may alienate someone else. It had not occurred to him that this was the first time that he had not simply removed himself from an uncomfortable situation. There was too much at stake.
Weekends were the only time Owen and Julia had a chance to devote their full attention to each other. Her parents owned a villa in the small hillside town of Cortona that had been in the family for over two hundred years. It was kept as a reminder of their humble beginnings.
On their first trip to the house she offered to let him drive, but he was not comfortable with the task so he refused. When they arrived he was taken by the beauty of the countryside. The house sat atop a hill that was one of many that made up the landscape. Stones of varying sizes had been cobbled together to form its walls. He was astounded at the craftsmanship and dedication it took to build a structure that survived for centuries.
When he walked into the house all of the windows and shutters were closed and it was quite dark. Julia immediately went about opening them so fresh air could replace the stale. Owen hesitated not knowing what to do to help, so he stood in the middle of the living room and watched, waiting for instructions.
He noticed the interior walls were plastered with white stucco and several exposed beams supported the ceiling. A large fireplace made of the same stone as the house was obviously used to cook meals at one time in its history. It was large enough to hold a kettle and there were remnants of iron supports mounted into the fire-brick.
Owen saw the only bed was in a loft above the living room. Stairs ran up to it along the back wall. The railing was made of hand-hewn wooden posts he surmised were from trees felled somewhere near the property. Julia worked busily as if he were not there.
Once she settled into the house Julia instructed him to take their bags upstairs. He hesitated wondering if he should offer to sleep on the sofa. She sensed his reticence and insisted that their luggage be placed in the loft. After he completed his appointed task he sat on the bed and was overcome by silence. There was not a single appliance to offer a distraction.
Julia brought a list of chores prepared by her father. Although he did not look forward to spending their valuable time working, there was no way he would let any task be left undone. He even searched for needed repairs that weren’t on the list in order to make a lasting impression.
After dinner they moved outside and consumed a bottle of wine. Marriage was discussed, but the topic was kept at a distance recognizing its potential for rabidity. Julia offered to leave her family and move to Key West. Owen offered the sale of his house and a similar move to Italy. Both seemed willing to do whatever they knew would make the relationship work. No matter how right it felt for them to be together, both were skeptical of merely spoken words. Actions were what both yearned for, but neither knew how to give or receive love absolutely without feeling selfish. Physical desires were always present, but neither gave in to their cravings.
After completing their work on Saturday, they took a long walk into town and strolled through several quaint shops that lined the main thoroughfare. Cortona was not the busy tourist mecca Florence was, which allowed for a leisurely pace. Passing others occasionally on the sidewalk a pleasant ‘Ciao’ would be exchanged along with a smile.
A small wine shop near the end of the avenue offered the perfect spot to stop and eventually begin their journey home. The bell mounted above the door frame rang obnoxiously disrupting an otherwise tranquil environment as they entered the store. From behind the counter the couple watched a little old lady make her way toward them, hobbling as she walked.
“Ciao. Posso aiutarlo?” the old woman asked, as she came to a stop in front of them. Hearing the language intimidated Owen so he walked away and looked at the various bottles on the shelves that covered the walls.
“Stiamo cercando una bottiglia di vino per un’occasione speciale,” Julia responded.
“Appena siete stati sposati?”
Julia smiled at the woman and shook her head. “È definitivamente l’uomo che sono stata significato per sposarse, ma non siamo sposati ancora.”
Curiosity drove him to ask, “What are you two talking about?”
“Aside from what kind of wine we are looking for, she wanted to know if we were married.”
Owen smiled. “Your response was a lot longer than, ‘no.’”
An impish grin grew on her beautiful face. She walked over to him, wrapped her arms around his waist, pulled him close and gave him a kiss. “I told her that we were not married, but that you were the man I was meant to marry and be with for eternity.”
Owen looked deeply into her eyes. Their darkness and the way she looked at him longingly exuded emotional warmth and he found them comforting. “Thank you.”
She was taken aback by his response. “For what?”
“I’ve never known anyone who spoke in terms beyond immediate indulgence,” he admitted.
“Non farei mai qualche cosa danneggiarti.” Her native language instilled comfort and assurance. “I would never do anything to hurt you.”
Never before had Owen uttered a response to romantic words he knew to be absolutely true. “I know,” he replied as he held her tightly.
The little old woman shuffled behind the counter and disappeared into the back room. Owen and Julia eventually loosened their embrace and continued to look around the shop.
When the woman emerged she held a bottle of wine. It was dusty and appeared very old. Owen was the first to recognize a tear rolling down her cheek. He nudged Julia and instructed her with his eyes to look at the shopkeeper. When the two women saw each other the old woman handed the bottle to Julia. “Ciò è stata significata affinchè la mia figlia Partiva con il suo marito sulla loro notte di nozze. È morta come infante. Posso vedere che il vostro amore sia speciale come era. Desidero darti questo.”
Julia began to cry along with the shopkeeper. The women embraced. Owen felt isolated. He said nothing, allowing them to express themselves. Julia held the woman’s arms as they released their hug. Tearful smiles were exchanged. She turned and grabbed his hand and led him out of the store.
On their trek home she explained the old woman had a daughter who died as an infant. The bottle of wine was from their family’s vineyard and was meant for her wedding night. Although he shed no tears, the gravity of the gift was not lost on Owen.
That afternoon the first cold front of the winter moved through town with a vengeance. Owen spent most of the morning chopping wood in anticipation of the changing weather. Bitter cold eventually made it impossible for him to hold the ax firmly. He wanted desperately to chop an extra cord or two so the next visitors would not be left without fuel for a fire.
The evening was spent watching the orange glow emanating from the stone fireplace. He sat on the sofa with Julia’s head in his lap. She was covered by an afghan her grandmother knitted. Neither said a word. The silence allowed them to examine their brief history together. Each desired the other more than anyone else, but neither knew how to ensure their future wouldn’t be as tumultuous as their past. No one prepared them for the kind of love they found in each other, and they knew it was special. Julia knew the act of making love to Owen would stand apart based on the energy between them. He was not so sure of himself. The feelings he had for her were unadulterated by anyone or anything he experienced during his life. It had to be the same for their love-making and he had no idea how to make it happen that way.
They sat silently for so long that he questioned whether she had fallen asleep. His uncertainty was quelled when she asked about the proverbial elephant in the room. “Will you make love to me tonight?” Julia was sure the time and place were perfect; Owen was not.
“I can’t,” he admitted.
His answer was met with silence. She laid still wondering what the reason could be for him not wanting to make love to her. Is he no longer attracted to me? Each question she asked herself was totally contrary to how she felt and how she knew he felt. The ridiculousness of her thoughts finally caused her to ask for clarification. She sat up and scooted along the sofa until her back rested on its arm. She folded her legs in front of her, looked him directly in the eye and asked, “Why can’t we make love tonight?”
“Because I am just not sure that tonight’s right. I want it to be special for the both of us.”
She shook her head. “How can it not be special?”
Owen was as captivated by her as he had ever been. The animal in him was ready to pounce, but he knew that was not the right thing to do. Everything about her physical being was dark and smoldered and needed to be experienced in the most basic manner. She needed to be touched and tasted, but not until he was sure he knew how to make love to her in a manner that transcended the physical. Monica’s influence provided the impetus for him to strive for perfection. “I want to make sure that everything is right for us.”
Exasperatedly, Julia responded, “What’s not right?” she asked, as she threw her arms out; palms skyward.
“Everything is perfect between us. From the moment I met you I’ve felt something deep within my soul that you, and only you, brought out in me. It was the first time my character had been enhanced by another person. I simply want to make sure that when we make love it will be all about us.”
Julia looked around the small house. “There’s no one else here!”
Owen thought carefully. “I know that I love you more than a man has a right to love a woman. It consumes me. Making love is the ultimate expression of the feelings I have for you, and I don’t want to settle for anything. I want it to be the best for the both of us.”
“It will be,” she implored.
“I need to make love to you somewhere without all the history that this house holds.”
“But it’s my family’s house, and has been for generations.”
Directness was something he hoped to avoid, but he had shunned it his entire life and that had gotten him nowhere. The only thing left to do was blurt out his concern. “I don’t want to make love to you in a house where you may have come with some other lover, or a high school boyfriend who you snuck away with in order to simply explore each other’s bodies.” Julia’s silence acted to confirm his fear. Thoughts of her with other men did not bother him, it validated his desire for purity in their relationship. “Don’t worry. It’s not a deal-breaker. This is what I need in order to have a clear vision of our future together.”
Julia smiled. She understood what he wanted and appreciated it. “Should we go to Key West?”
Owen laughed. “No. I’m afraid there is too much of me spread all over that island.” He paused. “Is there some place in Italy you’ve never been that we could call our own?”
“I’ve never been to the Italian Alps.”
She shook her head. “We always spent our vacations traveling across Europe.”
“But it’s so close.”
She nodded. “I promise, I’ve never been there.”
Owen threw up his hands in frustration. “No, that’s not what I meant. I believe you. It’s only a couple hours drive from here, isn’t it?”
“More like four.”
“Do you trust me to make the arrangements?”
She smiled as they leaned into one another. Just before kissing him, she said, “Of course.”
After a long, soft, slow kiss Owen leaned back, breaking the bond between them. “There is one thing I’d like to do tonight, with you, that I have never done before.”
“I’d like to sleep with you naked.”
“You’re not afraid that will lead to something?”
Owen shook his head. “I know it won’t because I have made up my mind to do whatever it takes to make this relationship the best one in the history of humanity.”
“It’s going to be very cold tonight. Are you going to get up in the middle of the night to tend to the fire?”
“Of course, but I hope that we will generate enough heat between us to suffice.”
When it came time to retire for the evening Julia made the bed with a large down comforter she removed from a foot-locker at its end. Owen stoked the fire and stacked several logs on top, but not too many that one may roll onto the floor. When he was done he ascended the stairs to find her standing beside the bed in a nightgown that was sheer and left very little to the imagination. Every inch of her body was perky and erect in the cold night air. The bed was turned down.
“Is there something wrong?” he asked.
“Other than me standing half naked in the bitter cold … no.”
“Crawl in bed.” He pointed to it.
She shook her head and shivered, simultaneously. “No. You are going to have to look at what you will be missing.”
Owen smiled wryly. “Then you’ll have to do the same.” He removed the sweater and shirt that he wore in one motion by grabbing the tail of both and pulling them over his head. Once he began to remove his pants Julia reached up with both hands and pulled the straps of her nightgown down off her shoulders, allowing it to drop to the floor. Owen could never have imagined a woman could be so beautiful. To his amazement he remained flaccid. Sex was no longer a mission with a culmination. It had become an expression that would last forever. There was no need to rush eternity. Owen felt it every time he thought of her.
The two lay in the same position throughout the night. Skin-to-skin contact was continual and gentle. In those hours there was more communicated between them than ever had been.
During the night, as they slept, Julia received confirmation of the purity Owen desired. Not once did he intrude into her physical realm. Yet a single act displayed by her unconscious lover spoke volumes about his intent. At a time when his mind was free of influences from outside forces he reached toward her hand, interlocked his fingers in hers, and gently squeezed.
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