Content warning : Nudity and sexual innuendo
After receiving the Merlin Award for Best Stage Magician, Leonardo has been touring in Europe accompanied by his wife and newborn son.
It’s not easy to bring a baby on tour, but Shasta didn’t want to let Leonardo – who is not only known for his superior magic tricks, but also for being a notorious womanizer – roam Europe on his own. Typically of her husband, there is a fair share of partying after the shows and the Champagne flows. She is exhausted after the birth in general and by the task of putting their reluctant son to bed in particular, so she is usually asleep when Leonardo stumbles home in the wee hours of the morning.
She has never been fond of sex, and carrying his child proved an excellent excuse to avoid what she has deemed “THE” chore. Leonardo was extremely thoughtful and considerate, especially during the difficult last month, when she felt utterly sick and her health drastically decreased. She kept up appearances, though, and Leonardo needed his wife by his side at the important Award ceremony. She had never believed in the witches’ curse anyway. The old sayings about being able only to give birth to one child must surely be overrated. Especially today, with modern medicine. But modern medicine had had a tough job to save the arrogant witch when she went into labor a month early…
Rowan is a healthy baby, with extremely good lungs. His screaming has kept Shasta awake throughout the nights but she has so far stubbornly refused to listen to Leonardo’s advice and hire a nanny. She wanted to show everyone what a perfect wife she was, how good she was at motherhood, and besides, if someone else cared for the screaming baby during the night, she wouldn’t have any excuses for being tired and having constant headaches. She quickly made the maths – dark circles because of a screaming baby, or endure her husband’s constant advances? Her choice seemed obvious.
She keeps a discreet eye on what he’s been up to after the shows by reading the usual rags, but when one morning the butler hands her “Le Figaro” with a smug smile, she decides enough is enough. There’s a picture of her husband on the first page and she tries hard not to tear the newspaper out of the butler’s hand.
‘Thank, you. You may dispose.’
She waits until the door discreetly closes behind the hotel employee before scanning through the article and quickly leafing through to the entertainment pages where she can read the rest of the revolting article.
She has suspected him of sleeping around, he has an incredible appetite for sex after all, but a law suit for sexual harassment? Not his style at all. Women throw themselves at him. She knows for sure that he had someone on the side during her pregnancy, but she didn’t really mind at the moment as she was too sick to really care. But she doesn’t want that to happen again. Shasta doesn’t want to share her husband’s fortune – a regular mistress is costly, and this little slut on her husband’s knee doesn’t look a day over sixteen! THIS will be expensive…
While in France, Leonardo’s producer has caught on to the tensions between the famous magician and his beautiful, but cold wife. After the last show he decides it is time to interfere by lending them a little romantic getaway.
‘There’s nothing like a little quality time far from civilization to bring a couple together again,’ he says with a wink, handing the keys to a dubious Leonardo.
That’s how they end up on a quaint little island off Bretagne, not far from the famous ancient pirate dwelling of San Malo where they have typical Breton crepes with ham and cheese, washed down with strong cider in funny stoneware cups, before getting on the ferry.
The taxi stops in front of a little grey stone cottage surrounded by a low stonewall. It is a typical Breton fisherman’s house, the same as all the others they have passed on their way here. All made of grey granite with high chimneys and slated roofs.
Shasta thinks it’s depressing with all the grey –the high cliffs, the large stones scattered everywhere… Even the sky is assorted, adding yet another shade of the dull color.
The sun breaks through the heavy clouds when they get out of the taxi and Leonardo decides to take Rowan outside while Shasta unpacks.
There’s only one bedroom, with a little old fashion cot under one of the tiny windows. Shasta has noticed that they are all small and deeply set in the thick walls, not letting in much light. She shudders. There don’t seem to be any heaters, so central heating is probably out of the question. There is an old black iron contraption though, with some wood stacked next to it. It better be working… She quickly stashes away their clothes in the drawers smelling of mothballs and lavender, hoping her fancy cashmere sweaters won’t absorb the horrible scent.
Finally she’s done. She grabs a pack of cookies and heads out to the backyard patio. It offers a splendid view over the Ocean, but she can’t take in the beauty of the scenery. To her annoyance, Leonardo is sleeping in one of the wooden loungers, with Rowan playing next to him with his ragdoll. Thank God the toddler is too busy trying to pry away Peaches’ button eyes to have thought about wandering off towards the sea. Leonardo is so irresponsible… She hands Rowan a cookie, and settles on the second lounger.
The autumn sun is warm, but there’s a chill in the air. Seagulls are screeching and the waves rolling in and crashing against the rocks are supposedly relaxing, but Shasta is too annoyed at being there to make the most of it. She’s secretly happy that they are sharing their room with Rowan, Leonardo can’t possibly expect them to have sex in front of their son? Even if he’s sleeping. She glances at her husband who doesn’t seem to have a care in the world, his head nodding in rhythm to his light snoring…
When it is not raining, or rather between showers, they go for long walks along the windy coast.
Leonardo spends much time with his son, building sandcastles and telling him stories from his old childhood. The little boy doesn’t understand everything, but he seems to appreciate the melodious Italian sentences, gratifying his father with beaming smiles, and repeating the last words.
He’s certainly cute, but full of mischief. Discovering the cottage on all fours, he touches everything in his range, and screams at the top of his lungs when his mother or father scolds him for getting dangerously close to the fire or trying to put his chubby little fingers in the old sockets. He wakes up at dawn, never napping like other children, and claims attention the whole day long. Having acquired some bad habits from the touring, he hates being alone and can’t fall asleep without his ragdoll. Usually Shasta gave in to the screaming, taking him in her arms until he finally fell asleep. These habits are now getting on his father’s nerves.
It’s almost midnight when Leonardo finally carries a sleeping Rowan back to his bed next to the window. He tiptoes back to the bed and snuggles up to his wife’s back, letting his hands roam over her breasts. Was that a sigh of pleasure? It definitely was a sigh. Encouraged, he kisses her neck and she turns around to meet his lips. A bloodcurdling scream shatters their embrace.
‘Why can’t he go to sleep at 7 p.m.? Other kids do!’ Leonardo complains.
‘Maybe it’s Mother’s gift?’ Shasta feels guilty about being relieved that their son interrupted them.
‘Per carità… Just give him that stupid ragdoll!’
Brushing her teeth, she watches the rain fall. Several days now that they haven’t been outside the cottage. She dries her mouth and decides to take a hot bath.
But the plumbing is as whimsical as the weather. Taking a bath means that you can’t even flush the toilet or the water stops flowing altogether. And that’s exactly what happened…
Rowan played in the bathroom, flushing repeatedly and now they’re out of water.
Shasta hates it all.
The uncomfortable cottage with its damp, cold stonewalls, the fact that she has to cook, clean and take care of Rowan, while her husband seems to think his contribution to the stay is lighting the fire and playing with their son.
She especially hates the weather. Grey skies and rain every day, more or less. Well, let Leonardo play full time dad. ‘I’ll just pick up some groceries, honey.’ She grabs the basket and is out the door before Leonardo even has the time to answer. Good. She needs some time alone. They’ve already visited the quaint little village during one of their long walks… There’s a butcher, a fish shop, a bakery and a small shop with fruits and vegetables. She rapidly picks up what she needs to make something special. She’ll impress Leonardo tonight with something really fancy. Homard Thermidor, or maybe Coq au Vin…
‘Would you mind hurrying up, Madame?’ She taps her foot glancing at the rapidly greying sky. She doesn’t care what the woman at the counter says with her bright smile and her voice dripping with optimism, ‘Rain makes for a perfect teint – complexion, Madame.’
Shasta just stares at the beaming wrinkled face in front of her as she picks up the change and turns to leave.
‘Vos courses, Madame! Don’t forget your groceries!’
Laden with heavy bags, she trundles back to the cottage, kicking the door open, only to find Leonardo lying on the couch with his son snuggled on his chest. ‘Already back? What are you preparing for dinner, cara mia?’
Muttering, Shasta makes her way into the rudimentary kitchen, her ruined Blahniks leaving a muddy trail behind her. What the fuck. She’s the one who is mopping it up anyway.
Shasta is a hopeless cook. And Rowan has to eat real food, no magic hokey pokey can make a child grow, even if she had the competences of conjuring up a decent meal. After successfully burning the Coq au Vin, overcooking the artichokes and generally making a mess, she angrily empties some macaroni into boiling water.
Mac and cheese. It is probably not what’s needed to make Rowan grow or to keep her husband happy, but it’s about the only thing Shasta manages to cook…
After a week of sleepless nights, early mornings and mac and cheese. Leonardo decides the time has come to go home to Monte Aquila.
And hire a nanny.
They leave the cloudy Atlantic coast for the sunny hills of Tuscany. Rowan screaming during the whole flight…
The Di Grisogno dell’Aquila Mansion has been in use over generations. It is a typical Tuscan house built with roughly dressed lime stone and shale, the extensions and additions added over time. The arched windows are framed with full-size wooden shutters and the tile used in the patio is dating from the early Renaissance. It features a fountain, which Leonardo refused to let go off when he let his wife re-do the decorating of his ancestral home. Shasta has taste and she decorated the interior in the same warm range of brown, reds and yellows, as seen during her frequent travels from Monte Aquila to Florence. She went a little overboard when she wanted to replace the square drain pool with a Roman Empire statue of Venus, but Leonardo was adamant, the fountain is the heart of the mansion and would not be touched during his living.
As soon as they are home, Leonardo hands over Rowan to their reluctant butler, ‘Take il bambino to his room, put him to bed, feed him and for heaven’s sake, give him a bath! Not necessarily in that order, James. Signora Di Grisogno and I don’t want to be disturbed under any circumstances. Capisce?’
The Butler stands crestfallen with a smelly Rowan held at arm’s length. ‘Sir? But I…’
But Leonardo has already hurried after his wife, ignoring both the offended Butler and their screaming son. At least Rowan’s not sleeping in their room. And Leonardo might be weary after the long journey, but he isn’t that tired…
The next morning they have a lazy Italian breakfast. Leonardo is humming to himself, unfolding the napkin on his knees. Their Butler has prepared breakfast skewers with sweet Italian sausage, peppers, onions and pineapple. The smell of coffee and fresh ciabatta bread mingles with the smell of warm grass. Shasta is not dressed yet, showing off her perfect body in a red silk negligée. She’s dunking her almond biscotti in a black espresso while keeping an eye on Rowan, who’s on his best behavior.
They small talk about the coming afternoon. The agency Leonardo have contacted by mail is efficient and has already set up seven girls for today. Shasta wants to do the interviewing, there’s no way she’ll accept someone younger and more beautiful than herself getting all the attention. She knows Leonardo will choose the first beautiful girl who smiles at him, instead of looking for other, more essential qualities.
Leonardo takes Rowan for a long walk in the stroller after lunch, so Shasta can interview the candidates without a screaming Rowan scaring them all away. He likes walking with his son, it’s seems to be the only moment the little boy is actually calm.
There is already a whole bunch of chattering women lining up in front of the main entrance when he turns around the corner with a charming Rowan on display in the stroller. They all go quiet, then, as if on cue, the giggling and whispering start.
A handsome gentleman like himself, and a charming little boy like Rowan, draw a lot of female attention. His power of seduction needs comforting, his wife’s behavior since the birth isn’t at all like before. But maybe that’s the way women reacts to pregnancy and motherhood? Still, maybe he should give Gianna Moretti a call…
He smiles and winks at a beautiful blonde, knowing for sure his wife certainly won’t pick her – she would be a fool if she did. But he’ll get the name from the list and he might summon her to a special interview.
With a new spring to his step, he takes Rowan to one of the parks, enjoying the sunshine.
Meanwhile, Shasta has started on the interviews.
‘Firenze. Carla Firenze. Firenze – Florence?’ The girl looks expectantly at Shasta who looks blankly back.
‘Can you tell me something about your work experience?’
‘Well, I’m 19. I graduated from ENGS last year and I’ve been working here in Monte Aquila with the Costa’s since graduating.’
Shasta looks at Carla and rises one eyebrow. Carla continues describing her wonderful life with the Costa family passionately.
‘So what was your reason for leaving?’
‘Haven’t you heard? The Costa’s are mobsters! The Mafia!’
‘…così ho sempre amato prendersi cura dei bambini!’
‘Miss Lucca, Elvira… My husband made it perfectly clear to the Agency that we needed an English speaking nanny…’
‘Well… Uh… Arrivederci, Miss Lucca…’
‘I cared for a five year old boy and a two year old girl, five days per week. Duties included picking the children up from school and nursery respectively, arranging play dates for the girl, teaching her arts and crafts, taking trips to the park and helping the boy with any homework he may have. I prepared meals and tended to the children’s washing and ironing…’
‘What was your reason for leaving?’
‘They seemed to have a problem with my Nation of Islam membership. Would you believe it? Bloody racists all of them…’
The blond bombshell pouts and bats her false lashes. ‘I’m an actress, you see, and I was hoping for an opportunity to assist the Dazzler in his shows – I’m a huge fan!’
And way too beautiful, Shasta thinks, taking in the voluptuous platinum blonde. She clears her throat. ‘Thank you. That will be all. I’ll let you know if we’re interested.’
‘Your husband. Don’t forget to ask your husband.’
‘Miss Massa-Carrara, you know this is a live-in position? Monday to Saturday but we travel frequently, and we expect you to take care of Rowan on a 24/7 basis when my husband and I are away. We have staff, but I’d like you to prepare Rowans meals…’
‘Oh. I don’t eat, it’s a nuisance with food when you need to stay slim. But I will see to it your son gets a healthy start in life – I will teach him how to count calories…’
‘… the girl was to start school full-time and hours decreased significantly.’ The homely woman looks earnestly at Shasta. ‘Oh, and I also have a diploma in Pediatric First Aid – Safe & Sound Organization, a Certificate in Child Care and Education and I have an International Driver’s License – with a clean record.’
‘Well.’ Shasta looks at her notes. This one is too good to be true. Old, homely and overweight. Perfect. She clears her throat. ‘What are your hobbies, Miss Gianninni?’
‘Cycling, hiking, traveling, reading and running marathons.’
‘Running marathons? No less… Well, being in shape helps when you run after a child the whole day…’
‘Why does it always come back to this? To be in shape?’ Renata Gianninni stands up, covering her face to hide her tears. ‘Someone like yourself can’t possibly understand what it means to struggle with your weight…’
‘Salve! I am Gemma Arezzo!’ The young girl looks awed around her. ‘Where is he?’
No – The Dazzler! It’s his house, no?’ The young girl looks intently at Shasta, scrunching her little freckled nose. Shasta stares back. The red-haired girl in pigtails can’t be a day over twelve.
‘Err… How old are you… Err… Miss…’ Shasta scans her list, but there’s no Arezzo. ‘There must be a mistake…’
‘I have thirty years!’
‘Tredici! Next August!’
‘Yes. I told you – thirty.’
‘I think you’re a bit young. Don’t you have a school to attend to?’
‘Of course I have. But I can do baby-sitting in the evening. And maybe the Dazzler can do a famous trick!’
‘Well. We’re not looking for a baby sitter…’
Shasta has interviewed six of the girls when Leonardo comes rushing in. During his walk in the park he couldn’t help noticing how his son, and people in general, were fascinated by the first butterflies and it led to a bright idea. He promptly jumped into a taxi to make it home fast to tell her about his new trick.
‘… so I decided to use butterflies! Tada! Farfalle!’
Shasta gapes as Leonardo with a bold gesture makes the ceiling disintegrate into colorful butterflies.
‘Wow… That’s amazing…’ They both turn to stare at the young woman sitting on the couch. Shasta had completely forgotten she was still there.
‘Ahem, this is Signore Di Grisogno, Rowans father and my husband,’ Shasta accentuates the last word.
‘It’s a pleasure to meet you, Signorina…?’ Leonardo bends over her hand, making the young woman blush furiously.
‘Valentina,’ the blonde says breathless, batting her eyelashes. Shasta looks pointedly at her husband.
‘Eh… I’ll go see what Rowan’s up to. Arrivederci.’ With a vague gesture of his hand towards the girl, Leonardo rapidly walks outside again.
‘We’ll keep you updated, Miss…’ Shasta says.
‘But I haven’t told you anything about myself or what I can do for your son.’
‘… or for my husband,’ Shasta mutters.
‘I’m sorry, Signora. I didn’t quite catch that.’
‘Good. As I said, we’ll keep in touch.’ Shasta stands up, showing the interview is over. The guts. She watches the door close behind the doe eyed blonde before making it upstairs, where Leonardo is leaning against the railing, watching the sky and smoking a cigar. Shasta waves away the smoke with hand.
‘So, when is she starting?’
‘I don’t know, cara. One of the seven.’
Shasta fidgets under his piercing stare. ‘Err…’
‘This is not good for us, cara.’ Leonardo stabs out the cigar against the railing and flips it into the bushes below.
She watches him, trying to see what the other women see. He’s tall, and handsome. And famous and disgustingly rich. She can’t afford to lose him to someone who’s too willing to do anything to secure a husband like him. And it’s only a matter of a couple of minutes anyway…
She starts walking towards their bedroom, stopping and looking at him over her shoulder with a sultry look she masters to perfection.
‘Leonardo, fai l’amore con me…’
‘This must be it. It’s the last house…’ The young girl scratches her short pink hair and creases her eyes against the intensive sunlight, scrutinizing the two storey mansion. She leans in towards the mailbox.
‘Cypress Retreat – Di Grisogno dell’Aquila… RDG. DG for Di Grisogno, huh? Is that what the initials on the label means? You don’t fit into the mailbox, so maybe I should just leave you at the door. What do you think?’ she asks the ragdoll in her arms.
Of course it doesn’t answer. She can’t believe she’s talking to it like this, but somehow it feels natural. It’s so worn – the little kid who threw it out of the taxi’s window must be devastated. It landed right at her feet, making her decide to try to find its owner instead of continuing right to the beach party she was supposed to attend. The taxi had turned right, up into the hills, and she had started on her trek up here. Her eyes flicker towards the destroyed paper at her feet. Whatever animal made that might do the same to the little ragdoll.
She stretches to put the ragdoll on top of the mailbox, when she’s interrupted by a noise coming from around the corner. It’s a child crying, and she recognizes the little boy immediately.
‘Hey! Look what I found!’ She brandishes the ragdoll but the little boy sets off on his hands and knees, turning back where he came from. She hurries after him, just wanting to get rid of the ragdoll so she can leave.
With a scream she rushes forward to stop the little boy from falling into the water. The Butler emerges, and a naked woman who must be the boy’s mother, clutching a sheet. She’s followed by a man she recognizes from the taxi. They all come running towards her, screaming in Italian and English. She holds on to the little boy who’s now laughing, tugging at her pink hair, running his chubby little fingers against the shaved hair behind her ears. His mother reaches for her son, crying, and the young girl immediately lets go of him.
To everyone’s surprise, the little boy lets out a bloodcurdling scream, reaching his arms out towards her…
A week later a routine has established in the Di Grisogno mansion. Ellen Janssen, the young Danish student, has signed for a year as a live in au pair. She’s not supposed to work more than five hours a day, but Leonardo offered her such a good salary, ten times more than the usual 250 euros per month, and Ellen happily obliged. She even agreed on letting her hair grow out and stop wearing her usual provocative outfits. The last was Shasta’s idea – there are unwritten rules about a nanny’s dress code, and they don’t involve piercings, shaved heads or crop tops. Tights jeans that show off thongs are definitely a NONO. Especially with Leonardo around… Ellen was reluctant, but Shasta insisted – no relooking = no job! Parting her hair at the middle, the shaved sides don’t show anymore…
Alla buon’ora! Finally! Thanks to Ellen, the Di Grisogno’s life is back to normal. Hiring the young Danish girl seems to work out for the best for everyone; Ellen gets a nice pay and studies Italian with the CNED, Leonardo has his wife to himself – night and day…
Even James, the Butler is relieved to have a nanny living there. His employer had scared the hell out of him when he thrusted the smelly, screaming little boy into his arms upon their return. Taking care of Rowan, even for just a night, had been challenging and was absolutely not included in his functions.
But now Ellen is here, he doesn’t have to worry about the child anymore. It’s included in Ellen’s contract that she shall provide all care necessary for Rowan – cook, wash and iron his clothes and, of course, play with him.
The only one who’s not satisfied about the arrangement is Shasta… She would rather continue playing a full time mother than have to slip back into the role of an enticing mistress…
Part I – End of Chapter 34