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Authors: Lori Dillon

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BOOK: Out of the Ashes
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“I’m sorry,” she whispered when she finally did pull away, leaving his empty hand to hang in the air between them. “I don’t normally do this.”

He let his hand drop to his side, curling his fingers to capture the warmth left by her cheek. The air around them felt too intense. He needed to find a way to lighten things before it became downright awkward.

“What? You don’t give ignorant laborers personalized guided tours of the ruins every day?”

His attempt at humor seemed to work. She smiled, swiping at her cheek and smearing the wet tear trail into a muddy streak. He was suddenly struck by how beautiful she was in the fading light, smudged cheek and all.

“Well.” She cleared her throat, donning her normal reserve like a protective coat. “I guess that’s the end of your history lesson for the day. We should get going if we want to be out of here before it gets too dark.”

Disappointed that whatever spark had flashed between them had died, he nodded. “Yeah. I guess so.”

They left the pottery shed in silence. After retrieving their bicycles outside the east entrance, they headed down the road toward the modern town of
Pompei
, built in the shadow of the sleeping giant, Vesuvius, just as the ancient town had been.

Sera confounded him. One minute she seemed made of stone, the next she cried over a child whose only trace of existence was now a plaster cast. He wondered if she ever felt that deeply for a living person, if she ever let her guard down. Or did she only put up the walls when she was with him?

But she had shown him a crack in that wall tonight, and as they went their separate ways, David found himself wondering if he might be able to knock it down, stone by stone.

Then he reminded himself that he didn’t plan on being there that long.

* * *

 

Serafina parked her bicycle in the small courtyard behind the
Angelicos
’ villa and slipped in the back door. As she made her way down the center hallway, she tried not to make noise on the black and white tile floor.

Her attempt was in vain. As she passed by the
Angelicos
’ door, Maria stepped out, wiping her hands on her stained apron.

“Serafina? I thought I heard someone. My, aren’t you late coming home this evening?”

Serafina continued on, then paused with her hand on the newel post at the base of the stairs.

“Yes, well, I got a little side-tracked tonight with work.”

“Oh, any interesting discoveries?”

Yes, about myself. I’m soft-hearted and a sucker for a handsome face
.

“No, nothing yet. But then, I’ve only just begun in the new area. It’ll probably be a while before I uncover anything at all.”

Maria nodded in understanding. “So, how is it with the new young man?”

How was it that the old woman could come right to the heart of the matter?

“Fine,” she lied. If she felt differently, she wouldn’t admit it, not even to herself. “I’m really tired, Maria. I’ll see you in the morning.”

“Good night then.” Maria smiled and slipped back into her rooms.

Serafina raced up the stairs and closed herself inside her flat. She should feel safe and comforted there, but she didn’t.

She looked around, seeing only a place where she slept and kept her clothes. Just the bare necessities remained from her life before her mother died—a beat-up table with three chairs in the tiny kitchenette, a worn green couch and scarred coffee table in what passed as a sitting area, a quilt-covered iron bed and wooden dresser in the back near the window.

No, this place wasn’t her home. The ruins were. They were where she felt the most comfortable. Usually.

She attempted to hold back the sob that threatened to choke her. She did her best to remain detached from the personal tragedy of the disaster, but every now and then something would slip through the cracks.

The child.

She hadn’t been the one to discover the body cavity or to pour the plaster into the holes to make the cast. But she had been there when the other archeologists chipped away the hardened shell and lifted what was left of the tiny body from its grave of ashes. Her heart had broken thinking of an innocent child suffering so, all alone with no one to help him.

Just like she felt right now. Alone.

She pushed herself away from the door and dropped her pack on the kitchen table.

She needed to get a hold on herself. What had brought on this upheaval of emotion? Granted, her simple life had been disrupted the past few days, but that shouldn’t have her in tears. She’d faced worse hardships and disappointments in her twenty-three years. She was a stronger person than that.

Taking a deep breath to clear her head, Serafina lifted the flap of her pack to take out her empty lunch pail and canteen. As she reached in, her fingers brushed the wilted petals of forgotten wildflowers, and one last tear escaped to fall slowly down her cheek.

Chapter 10
 

The
chunk-swoosh-
thunk
of his shovel stabbing into the dirt, sliding off the blade, and landing in the wheelbarrow had a hypnotic effect, creating a rhythm to David’s labor. He shoveled without conscious thought, the monotony of the movements helping him forget the strain on his back and the blisters on his hands.

Day after day, he and Sera worked in veritable silence as the sun rose high in the Mediterranean sky, baking the exposed dirt until it cracked. This morning, a gentle breeze blew in from the sea, bringing some relief from the heat. It also picked up the fine volcanic ash that coated the ground and swirled it upward to sting his eyes and parch his throat.

Taking a break to get a drink of water, he glanced up from his pit to where Sera worked at the screening table. Using a screen stretched on a wooden rack, she sifted the dirt he shoveled to catch any small artifacts that might be present in the upper levels of debris.

It was becoming a typical scenario. Ever since the evening he comforted her over the plaster child, Sera had kept her distance around him, sticking strictly to the business of excavating. She avoided any of his attempts at pleasant conversation or—heaven forbid—friendship. Apparently that small crack in her carefully structured facade had scared the daylights out of her, and she was doing everything she could to prevent it from happening again. The woman put up walls higher than the crumbling ones surrounding the ruins.

Her back was to him as she bent over the worktable under the tent, and David leaned on his shovel and took a moment to observe her.

She was in her element in the ruins. At times, she seemed to be one with the rocks and dirt. He’d joined the army partly to please his father, but he had never had Sera’s level of dedication for her work. He almost envied her commitment. It was a strength that he lacked in his own life.

He also admired her shapely backside. Bent over the table as she was, it was shown to rounded perfection in the khaki trousers she wore. The loose cut of the pants gave no hint of the shape of her legs, but the tight waistline suggested a slim figure. She wore a pale yellow blouse today, with the sleeves rolled up and cuffed over her forearms.

David was so busy studying her attributes, a moment passed before he noticed the music. He didn’t have to see her face to know that she was the one singing. The fact that she sang as she worked didn’t surprise him, nor was he surprised that she had a pleasant voice. The shock was in what she was singing. The song was unmistakable.

The familiar lyrics floated to him across the ancient stones, causing him to hold his breath so that he wouldn’t miss a single note.

Oh, give me something to remember you by

when you are far away from me, dear

Some little something meaning love cannot die

no matter where you chance to be

The song seemed so out of place, and it flooded him with memories of home—America.

Why on earth would Sera be singing an American Big Band tune? And in English, no less?

The singing suddenly stopped. She glanced in his direction, the wide brim of her straw hat shadowing her features. She must have sensed him watching her, since he had yet to make a sound.

A movement caught his eye and he noticed a strange man approaching. He wasn’t very tall, his apple-shaped body perched precariously on thin, bird-like legs. A wide-brimmed hat shaded the top half of the man’s face, but the sun practically bounced off white teeth barely contained in a wide smile.

“Serafina,” the man called out as he came closer, “so this is where they’ve hidden you.”

The timber of the voice was slightly higher than what David would normally consider manly. He watched Sera and the man kiss each other on the cheeks, amazed at how openly affectionate the Italians always were with each other.

At least, most were.

He stabbed his shovel in the ground and tossed the dirt into the wheelbarrow. Sera never greeted
him
with kisses on the cheek or anything more than a curt hello.

Of course, he couldn’t say he blamed her. For the most part, he’d been a thorn in her side since they’d met, except when that brief moment of tenderness seemed to pass between them.

He sighed as he stabbed his shovel in the dirt again, wondering if he had imagined the whole thing. It didn’t matter. It was probably for the best. No sense starting something he couldn’t finish.

David glanced up in time to see the man point in his direction, and Sera brought him over.

“Well, well. I wish I had an assistant who looked like him.” The guy placed his hands on his plump hips and actually winked at David.

Oh, great. One of those.
All he needed was some
pervy
bone-digger sniffing after him.

“It figures you’d get tall, dark, and handsome, and I get stuck assisting that snake, Giovanni.” The man turned to glare at Sera. “Thank you very much for that.”

“It wasn’t my idea,” she defended herself. “Besides, Giovanni is tall, dark, and handsome.” She pointed her thumb at David. “You can have him if you want.”

“Hey.” Why did he feel like a broken-down car no one wanted?

“Right, and have you back working with Giovanni? I’m a better friend than that.” The man looked him up and down and heaved a dramatic sigh. “Even if it does mean I don’t get the pleasure of working alongside this one.”

Now David really felt like a piece of meat, and as he stepped out of the shallow pit, he mentally apologized to any woman he’d ever demeaned with such talk in his past.

Finally, Sera acknowledged his presence.

“David, I’d like you to meet Olympia
Becchetti
. Olympia, this is David Corbelli.”

Olympia? A woman? He was so stunned, he momentarily forgot to take the woman’s offered hand. He quickly closed his mouth and, to make up for the errant path his thoughts had taken, raised her hand and kissed her dirty knuckles.

This drew a blinding smile from Olympia and a scowl from Sera.

“Now, that is what I call a gentleman,” Olympia gushed. “Maybe I will take you up on that trade. He’s much better than most of the old fossils working around here.”

“Fine, do what you like. I couldn’t care less.” Sera turned and stalked away.

He stared after her. If he wasn’t so sure she didn’t like him, he would have thought her jealous.

“Does she hate all men, or is it just me?”

“No,” Olympia chuckled. “It’s pretty much men in general.”

“Then is she…? She’s not a…” He couldn’t seem to shake the first impression he had of Olympia, and now the notion stuck in his head. If Sera truly hated men, could she possibly be…?

The shocked look on Olympia’s face indicated that she knew what he was inferring, and she laughed at the suggestion.

“Oh, no, no. Serafina definitely prefers the opposite sex. It’s just that…” She eyed him from under the brim of her hat. “Let’s just say that she hasn’t always had the best experiences with the men in her life.”

That bit of insight piqued his interest.

“So, she’s had her heart broken?”

“In more ways than one. The two men she cared about most in her life hurt her deeply. Now she finds it hard to let her guard down. She doesn’t trust easily.” She elbowed him in the ribs. “But don’t take it personally. I like you.”

Olympia walked over to where Sera was working at the screening table. The two women spoke to each other in rapid-fire Italian, one sometimes starting before the other was finished.

Despite his first impression, he liked Olympia. She had a jolly, deep-bellied laugh and made him feel instantly at ease. By comparison, Sera was serious and reserved, at least around him.

As he watched them chatting together, he could see they were close friends. Their love for archeology appeared to be a strong bond between two women who seemed so different from each other.

David didn’t know why it surprised him to find out Sera had friends. Or at least one friend. Since he’d met her, she seemed only concerned with the excavations. He’d never heard her talk about life outside the walls of the ruins.

Apparently she had one after all.

* * *

 

As evening settled over the ruins, David and Sera rode their bicycles along the narrow road toward town. Unaccustomed as he was to riding on the bumpy cobblestones, the pavers threatened to toss him off his bicycle at every turn. Still, he chanced a look up at the volcano in the distance, its peak shrouded by clouds. Or was that smoke seeping from the sleeping giant, awakening once more? He wasn’t sure and didn’t dare ask. A true Italian would know the difference.

By the time they reached the town, the sky overhead had eased from a bright Mediterranean blue to the dusky purple of twilight. The blaring of an amplified voice caught his attention. The speaker sounded odd, as if he were talking into a tin can, relaying news of the war on the Axis home front.

David glanced at Sera as she rode her bicycle beside him.

“Do you hear that?”



. They must be showing the latest newsreel in the
piazza
.”

His heart began to pound. Days had passed since he had seen Frank and heard news of any kind about the war. The archeologists seemed to live in their own little world. The ruins and the artifacts were the only thing they cared about, as if they stepped back in time once they crossed through the stone gate into the ruins, and to them the war no longer existed.

“Let’s go watch it.” He tried to keep his voice calm and not sound too eager. Any news, even that from the enemy’s perspective, was better than none.

She eyed him, her expression put upon, as if he had just asked her to clean the latrines. Finally, she nodded.

“All right. Come on.”

She pedaled down the narrow street toward the center of town, leaving him to struggle to keep up with her.

When they reached the
piazza
, he spied a film projector perched high up on a wooden stand. It cast a grainy black and white image against the cracked plaster wall of a building on the opposite side. The picture jerked occasionally on its makeshift screen, the tattered film riveted with holes and scratches from its constant showing in town to town.

As he watched transfixed, a bird’s eye view showed German bombers dropping their lethal arsenal on British targets far below, clouds of destruction rising silently in the air. The next scene showed innocent citizens in the town of Livorno running for cover with black smoke in the background as oil refineries exploded and burned. Then the film cut to young Italian soldiers fighting in muddy trenches, while the newscaster’s voice played over it all. He spoke of the Allies’ total disregard for innocent citizens as the film showed American planes dropping bombs on the town of Foggia, destroying the Axis airfields located there, along with much of the town.

David shook his head at the biased newscast. He knew some of the guys who had flown that mission. Hours before the air raid, the Allies had dropped leaflets over the populated targets, warning the citizens so they could evacuate the cities in time. The incident was just another example of how Mussolini twisted the truth to suit his needs.

The image switched once more, showing the aftermath of destruction in Livorno. As the townspeople picked through the debris, the crumbling stones and rubble-filled streets reminded him of the ruins.

He sensed Sera stiffening beside him.

“What?”

“How dare they bomb cities full of people? How can they do that, with the centuries of architecture and the museums with their priceless works of art? Don’t they realize how irreplaceable it all is?”

He felt her pain, but he also understood the other side.

“This is war, Sera, and unfortunately there is often a high price to pay, both in property and human lives.”

“It’s not just property. It’s history. It’s our past. Once it’s destroyed, we can never get it back.”

She looked ready to climb the scaffolding, tear the projector down, and rip the film from the reel with her bare hands.

“Damn the Allies,” she growled under her breath. “Damn the Americans.”

Her fierce hatred of the Allies—and apparently the Americans in particular—shocked him. Granted, Italy was fighting against the Allies. But at this point, it was mainly so Germany would not retaliate against the Italian people after Mussolini had pledged their support and gotten them into this mess. Most Italians were tired of the war and would rather not be in it at all. The average citizen was more or less ambivalent to the Allies.

But not Sera. Her hatred was visible in every fiber of her being—in the way she held her shoulders back, the way her jaw clenched, and her fists balled at her sides with the knuckles turned white. She hated the Americans with a passion.

“Perhaps we should go,” he said.

“Yes, I’ve seen enough.”

They left the
piazza
and rode down the street together, eventually parting ways. As he continued alone, he couldn’t get over how strong her emotions were after seeing the newsreel. Was she such a loyal Fascist that she hated anything that went against the movement, Germany, and Hitler? Somehow he found that hard to believe.

BOOK: Out of the Ashes
13.75Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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