A few days later, when the Di Grisogno’s are sure the Raukar isn’t a threat anymore, Ellen takes the children to the beach. Taïga is overly excited, pedaling ahead on a borrowed bike. Being trapped inside, even if it is in a wonderful house filled with toys, isn’t her idea of fun.
The beach is almost empty at this hour, most people arrive around eleven. Taïga is a little disappointed, she had hoped to find some kids her age to play with, but Rowan is OK too. Only problem is Ellen. She settles on a towel in the shadows, far from the water.
‘Stop complaining, Taïga. Here, I can listen to music without disturbing anyone, and I’m sure your mother doesn’t want you to get a sunburn instead of a tan. You can play here without danger,’ she says, handing Rowan a bucket and a spade and taking out a magazine.
‘C’mon, Rowan.’ Taïga grabs her little brother’s hand and heads for the sea.
‘Wait! Where are you going like that?’
Taïga stops. ‘Err… Playing in the water.’ Rowan tugs at her hand.
‘It’s too far. I promised not to let him out of sight. You can play with your brother in the sand, right here.’
‘I can see the water and it’s not as if we were going swimming or something. I’m sure you can keep an eye on us from here. ’
‘That’s not what I mean.’
‘What do you mean then? Granny said I could play in the sea.’
‘And I say your Granny is not here. Until then I’m in charge of Rowan and I said “No”.’
‘You’re in charge of Rowan. So can I go swimming?’
Ellen thinks about it. ‘Sure. But don’t stray too far!’ she calls after Taïga who’s already halfway into the water.
Rowan won’t have any of this. He looks from Taïga’s disappearing figure to the bucket in his hand. With a howl he lets go of it and sets after his sister. Ellen tries to hold him back, which only engenders another howl, making the few people at the beach look disapprovingly at them. Ellen falls on her knees, trying to calm him, making funny faces. It usually makes him laugh, but not this time. Screaming like a butchered pig, he hits Ellen hard on the head with the spade before throwing it away.
‘Ouch! You little monster!’ Grumbling Ellen lets go of him and trails in his wake to the waterfront.
The water is a little fresh at first, but soon Ellen has forgotten her bad mood and is fooling around with both kids, splashing water and giggling when she gets splashed at. Together with Taïga they run into the water, holding Rowan’s hands between them and hoisting him over the gentle waves. Finally they are tired and they settle in the shadows to build a sand castle, which Rowan happily stomps out.
Exhausted, they hike back in time for lunch. Shasta has a surprise for both Granny and Taïga. They are going shopping this afternoon.
Monte Aquila is a small town, but the few shops are very fashionable and Shasta has already booked time at her beauty parlor for Granny.
‘A special treat, she said. Since when is getting soaked in mud pleasant?’ Granny mumbles to herself, following the young spa attendant inside, waving goodbye to her daughter and granddaughter.
While Granny is getting massage and a complete relaxing and youth preserving treatment at the fancy SPA on the outskirts of town, Taïga is going to get a whole new wardrobe.
They leave the car as the center of Monte Aquila is a walking zone only, and stop in front of a window.
‘Look at that dress, Taïga.’
Taïga tugs at the hem of her cardigan. ‘Yeah. It’s nice.’ But she’s not looking at the dress, the woman balancing on a ladder trying to change a light is far more interesting.
‘Nice? It’s all in black lace on white silk. Handmade…’ Shasta muses. ‘I think I might get myself a little something, too.’
The door opens on a man, busy texting.
‘Ah, there’s Gianni. We’ll have to hurry before he vanishes.’
‘Vanishes? Is he a magician, like Leonardo?’ Taïga inquires, putting both hands against the window pane to get a better look at the handsome man entering.
‘Of course not. Such a stupid thing to say. Hurry up now, the entrance is right around the corner.’ Shasta grabs Taïga’s hand and pulls her along with her.
Shasta pushes open the glass doors. ‘Gianni!’
The tall man turns surprised around, putting his cell back into his pocket. ‘Such a pleasure, Contessa Di Grisogno!’ He opens his arms wide and with a huge smile greets Shasta, kissing her cheek.
‘Puoi aiutarmi? I was wondering if you could do me a favor.’
‘D’accordo, anything! Anything!’ He suddenly discovers Taïga. ‘And who is this bella ragazza?’
‘She’s my daughter, Taïga.’
Gianni raises an eyebrow. ‘Your daughter, Contessa? I didn’t know you had one.’
Politely Taïga holds out her hand, but to her surprise Gianni bends down and kisses her cheek. He smells good of something citrusy and his short beard prickles her skin.
‘Your style is err… particolare – peculiar. Is that how young people dress in America?’
‘I don’t live in-’
‘Not exactly,’ Shasta quickly explains her predicament, making Taïga squirm and feel stupid.
‘I like my tights,’ she mutters, but of course the adults aren’t taking any notice of her.
‘Well, I don’t usually relook kids… Hmm…’ Gianni Ricci looks her over. ‘But this little girl has got potential. As beautiful as her mother. I’m sure we’ll find something that suits her – and you, Contessa…’ He smiles and winks at Shasta, making her flutter her eyelashes and playfully tap his arm.
‘You’re such a charmer, Gianni.’
Gianni smiles even broader, returning his attention to Taïga. ‘Quanti anni hai? How old are you?’
‘Paloma! Come over here!’ He snaps his fingers and a young woman with glasses appears from one of the adjacent rooms. ‘Let me introduce you to my new assistant. She’s very good with children. Paloma, this is Contessa Di Grisogno.’
‘I’m so pleased to meet you, Contessa,’ Paloma gushes. ‘I’m a huge fan of your husband, and-’
‘Thank you, Paloma,’ Gianni cuts her off. ‘Would you please see what you can find for this young lady here-’ He raises his eyebrows in Taïga’s direction. ‘The blue room should be free, now.’
He takes Shasta’s elbow and steers her through the waiting area and into a huge dressing room. Taïga follows in their wake, stopping when she catches a glimpse of a beautiful blonde woman in a white dress. Her mother would look good in one of these, she muses, before Shasta grabs her arm, admonishing her to respect the privacy of the clients.
Shasta knows exactly what she wants for her daughter. ‘I was thinking something conservative. Classy but comfortable. No, forget comfortable! The principal is that she looks good. We’ll settle for everyday chic.’
Paloma nods attentively and vanishes only to be back a few minutes later, pushing a cart laden with hangers. Gianni excuses himself, he has a meeting with a commercial who is already waiting in his office.
Shasta quickly scans through the hangers, discarding the items that don’t agree with her idea of aesthetics. ‘No… No… No… I like the blue dress, and that blouse… Is that a crop top? She’s only nine, for Christ’s sake… What do you think, Taïga?’
‘I think it’s pretty – Serena had one of those back in Bigwood Falls but I prefer those dungarees. Can I try them on?’
Shasta doesn’t listen. ‘I think we should start with this dress…’ She hands Taïga a beige creation and ushers her behind the huge mirrors that also serve as separation.
Taïga sighs. She used to love dresses, but since the boys at school made a game out of lifting the hems, she’s so much better off in jeans or shorts. And the dress is awful, broderies anglaises and what not. ‘No. I don’t like the… err… the color…’
Shasta stares at her daughter in shock. ‘I don’t think you should try on anything, keeping those awful tights and boots on. Paloma, why aren’t there any accessories? We need shoes, lots of shoes in every color available.’
Paloma hurries away, but is almost instantly back with another load of clothes and accessories. ‘Now, what would you like to try on first?’
‘The flowery jeans! Pretty please?’
But her mother is adamant. Taïga obediently tries on dress after dress, and it isn’t half that bad. It’s actually quite fun. She twists and turns, encouraged by the assistant. She even tries on strappy sandals with heels! Only about an inch, but still heels.
Shasta finally gives in and lets her daughter try on some jeans. With a designer T-shirt, of course.
‘Great! I love these jeans, Mom! And the sneakers are Chanel, too. Look!’
Her mother looks her over. ‘I don’t think so, sweetheart… You look like a Tomboy. Cut that wild hair off and there’s no difference between you and a boy. We should get you a proper haircut one of these days, a girly bob perhaps,’ she says thoughtfully, adding, ‘and it is way too warm for jeans.’
‘Maybe shorts then, Contessa?’ Paloma tries, feeling sorry for the little girl. She doesn’t understand everything, but she gets the general feeling. The girl’s mother is constantly putting her down.
Taïga looks thoughtfully in the mirror. Her mom’s right. Her hair is really wild. There’s a constant struggle to keep the hair braided and she has abandoned all hope of looking girly.
‘I think Paloma has it under control, Contessa Di Grisogno.’ Gianni is back, rubbing his hands. ‘Let’s have a quick coffee while my assistant takes care of your bellissima daughter.’
Shasta blushes. ‘Why not?’
Both Taïga and the assistant heave a sigh of relief. Paloma rubs her hands. Now let’s get this little girl some cool Italian clothes.
Gianni takes Shasta’s elbow and escorts her out of the salon. Maybe they shouldn’t have left the assistant with Taïga, she might get a little too carried away, finally being left alone…
Time flies in good company, and after a two hour long coffee break Shasta finds her mother waiting back at the shop. She has got a manicure and a hairdo, and she’s sporting a nice outfit. Gianni compliments her, excusing himself as he has work to do. Granny raises an inquiring eyebrow at Shasta, but she doesn’t say anything about her having spent time together with the handsome stylist.
Shasta knows her mother. She might not say anything but she knows what she’s thinking. Feeling guilty, she fiddles with her necklace, looking her mother over. She seems at least ten years younger. It’s actually unnerving.
‘Is that all?’ Shasta nods towards the two expensive bags at Granny’s feet.
Granny chuckles. ‘I passed a little boutique and fell in love with this dress. I bought a lovely Chanel suit for the journey, too. I had totally forgotten how I used to enjoy shopping. I guess Taïga has it from me.’ She nods towards the sea of white luxury bags seen by the counter through the glass doors.
Shasta gasps, returning her attention to her mother. ‘All of them are Taïga’s?’
‘No. One of them is mine. I had to pick out some accessories to go with my outfits and Gianni has a very nice selection of shoes and scarves-’ Granny stretches out a leg and moves her foot clad in light grey pumps. ‘-the rest is Taïga’s. She’s still in there by the way.’
Shasta nods, heading for the entrance. ‘Aren’t you coming?’
‘No, I’ll just wait here. I haven’t finished my chapter and they are bringing me an expresso.’
Shasta hurries inside. Better stop the shopping before Leonardo has a fit. Not that he’ll even notice, his bank account easily supports a shopping spree like this and he gave her his black American Express… She mustn’t forget to have the dress in the window added to the bill.
‘Granny is waiting outside, we’ll have to leave soon-’ Shasta gasps. She takes one look at her daughter’s short bob and asks the assistant, deadpan. ‘What. The. Hell. Happened?’
The assistant nervously wrings her hands.
‘Well, I thought… It’s really warm and she said she wanted a haircut and…’ she anxiously rambles on.
Shasta listens without interrupting, closing her eyes.
Uh-oh… I would be quiet if I was her… Taïga knows her mother, and this doesn’t look good. When she starts counting like that… Well. Her silence is definitely not a good sign.
Shasta finally opens her eyes. ‘I don’t exactly pay you for thinking. I left my daughter with you for a quick coffee, and you succeeded in ruining her hair in that short time-’
‘Not that short-’
Too late… If there’s something Shasta doesn’t have – it’s patience. And living in Italy where people are rather passionate, well, her hands talk their own language. The violent slap takes the assistant off guard. She gasps, raising a hand to her burning cheek, straightening her glasses.
Taïga doesn’t stay to find out what will happen next. She turns on her heels and runs, pushing past a man, curious about the commotion, hovering on the opposite side of the curtain.
Gianni has also heard the tumult. Pushing the man aside he strides into the dressing room, taking in the disorder. Clothes are scattered across the floor and the assistant is desperately trying to hide behind a clothes cart from a furious Shasta.
‘What on earth is happening here?’ His low voice has the same effect as a cold shower on the two women. Shasta pushes away a strand of hair behind her ear, raising her chin. ‘Your… assistant has disfigured my daughter.’
Gianni turns towards Paloma. ‘Is it true?’
‘No. I mean not exactly. I just cut her hair a little.’
‘A little! You cut it off! Period!’ Shasta turns to Gianni, applying a suitably sad expression. ‘Her hair had never been cut… Her long curls…’ She snivels, tapping under her eyes to dry a tear. ‘I’m pressing charges.’
Grabbing Paloma’s arm he walks her out of the dressing room without a word.
Shasta quickly regains her spirits and follows them, her mind set on reparation. Oh, my. This will cost Gianni. A lot.
Bianca, the sales person, watches Taïga rush outside, slamming the doors open. ‘Attenzione!’ Where is the wretched girl’s mother? Spoilt brats running wild is not good for business…
‘I’m sorry!’ Taïga shouts over her shoulder, looking wildly around for her grandmother.
There’s only one person on the patio and Taïga squints. Could that fashionable elder woman reading on a bench in the sun be a newer, seemingly younger version of her eccentric grandmother?
‘Granny! You must do something. Mom-’
‘Wait a minute, I’ll just finish the sentence…’ Granny answers distractedly, without looking up. Yes, it’s definitely her grandmother. Taïga frets, jumping from one foot to the other.
She throws a glance over her shoulder into the boutique, watching Gianni, Paloma and her mother briskly walk past. So she hasn’t killed Paloma. Yet. She looks back at Granny, who calmly turns the page. Oh, come on…
Shocked, Bianca watches Gianni walk Paloma past the counter, heading to his office upstairs. Cutting the girl’s hair wasn’t such a good idea after all. Teaches that bitch Paloma that all her ideas aren’t that splendid, huh? If she plays her cards right she might get a promotion to assistant now…
Just looking at the Contessa’s grim expression as she passes in Gianni’s wake, Paloma is probably leaving this same day…
She watches the little girl fretting about outside, trying to talk to the old lady. Probably her grandmother… She’ll have a fit when she sees her granddaughter’s hair. Bianca tries not to smile. It’s a pity she can’t take out her cell to immortalize it… Ah, there goes…
Bianca is so distracted by her own thoughts, that she doesn’t pay attention to a client helping herself to some custom jewelry from right under her nose.
With a sigh Granny closes the book. Finally.
‘Granny! I think mom’s going to-’
Granny stares at her wildly gesticulating granddaughter. ‘What happened in there? Don’t tell me your mother cautioned this? If I get my hands on the… the…’
Livid, she stands up, but Taïga blocks her way. ‘No, please, don’t go in there, Granny! Mom is furious enough. I don’t want you to scream at the poor assistant too! I kind of like my hair like this…’
Granny stares behind Taïga. ‘I won’t scream at her – I’ll just transform her into a frog – or a spider!’
‘I’m afraid Mom will do just that…’
Suddenly Granny chuckles. ‘You know she won’t, because she doesn’t know how. But judging from what happened to your hair, I bet that assistant wishes she was a spider!’
Granny takes a deep breath, falling on her knees in front of the little girl. ‘We can’t draw attention to ourselves by getting your hair back, so… Well… I can always make your hair grow a little faster with a special shampoo…’
Taïga sighs. She likes her new look, especially the hair clips Paloma gave her. All the Italian girls are wearing clips like these… Or was it Japanese girls? Whatever. She knows just how to use them.
‘Mother. Taïga. It’s time to go.’
Granny kisses Taïga’s cheek and looks up at her daughter. ‘What about the shopping?’
‘It will be delivered.’ Shasta lowers her voice. ‘And I didn’t even pay for it.’
Taïga helps her grandmother to her feet. ‘That is the least he could do,’ Granny says, dusting off her skirt.
Back home, Shasta disappears to check on Rowan and Granny heads for the kitchen where she finds James, the Butler, eagerly waiting for her. He’s an excellent cook, and Granny has discovered not only a talent for cooking herself, but also a passion for it. He has shown her some of his most successful dishes, and she has promised to teach him something special from her childhood. She would never have thought that exchanging recipes could be so entertaining. Her first thought was of clambake, but the warm weather and the absence of seaweed made it impossible to go through with. And she has no idea how to cook it anyway.
‘… so I’ll teach you how to make an authentic triple coconut cream pie.’
The Butler nods. ‘I say, it sounds tasty enough. But as you’re leaving tomorrow, I think we should better start with Risotto. Then Gnocchi. Finally I’ll show you how to make my special Tiramisu… Oh, and you’d better use an apron.’
The Butler and Granny set to work. Taïga settles on one of the counter stools, waiting for them to give her something to do. She loves watching Granny cook, even if Granny doesn’t let her help as much as Mrs. Brown did. She would have loved it here, Taïga thinks, catching Granny’s eye. Her grandmother smiles at her and Taïga marvels over how she has changed during the weeks here. She seems younger, more carefree. Maybe it’s thanks to Rowan, who she’s doting on… She sips a little fresh lemonade and picks up her mother’s old tablet.
‘Are you sure you can play with that?’ Granny asks.
‘Yeah. Leonardo said it was broken anyway. He’ll buy me a gelado at Tony’s if I can get it to work.’
‘Hmm. As long as you don’t break it.’
‘I told you it’s already broken.’
‘Don’t use that tone with me, young lady.’
‘Sorry, Granny. I’ll be super careful…’
Soon the kitchen is filled with tasty odors and Granny is busy with all the casseroles and pans on the stove.
Taïga concentrates on how to get Shasta’s iPad working. It seems to be blocked somehow…
There. The screen lights up. Now where’s the camera?
‘Can I take a picture of you with mom’s iPad?’
‘Of course! So you repaired it?’
‘Yeah. Seems I’m gonna get a gelado tomorrow!’
She stands up on a chair and Granny and James strike a pose.
‘Can we see?’
‘I’ll have to edit it first… Just a sec.’
But when she tries to check out the photo, she stumbles on a photographed text. She knows she shouldn’t read it, but it looks familiar somehow. Handwritten and definitely not in English. Probably very old.
After dinner she brings the iPad upstairs, but she doesn’t get a chance to inspect the strange text further, as Rowan refuses to sleep. He holds on to the railing of his bed, jumping up and down and pointing at her. Maybe it wasn’t such a good idea to let him jump on her bed this morning…
She heaps of pillows around her bed so he won’t hurt himself if he falls. Up and down they jump and soon they are both screaming with laughter.
It’s late when Granny finally gets ready for bed. When she tiptoes into the kids’ room, they are already sound asleep, so she just tucks them in and plants a light kiss on their forehead. She’s so lucky to have two healthy grandchildren… Taïga has fallen asleep on the iPad, so she withdraws it, putting it on the table next to her bed. She must tell Shasta to watch out so Taïga doesn’t over-use it. All these new technologies can’t be healthy.
She puts the bottles with the special shampoo in the bathroom. The different plants combined with the sunshine should stimulate the growth some, but there’s no way her granddaughter’s hair will grow out fast enough without magic. And she’s too young, using magic on a child has consequences. They will have to do as Shasta suggested – extensions. Gianni said he would pay for everything…
The stress of flying out from Italy and leaving Taïga behind gets Granny out of bed before the alarm rings. She tries to braid her hair like the spa attendant had the day before, but it’s impossible. She finally pins it up a little haphazardly, fixing it with an impressive amount of pins and hairspray.
Applying some lipstick and pinching her cheeks, she thinks about her journey back to Vulturu, alone. She mustn’t worry about her granddaughter, she’s staying with her mother after all. But what if Shasta is mean to her? She has no reason to think so, but she can’t help herself. Shasta doesn’t know how sensible Taïga is. What if the poor girl has got the impression she loves her son, Rowan, more? She shakes her head, trying to get rid of the morose thoughts. She should be happy, finally getting to spend some quality time with her sister, among adults.
She grabs her suitcase. Ouch. It sure is heavier than when they arrived. A light knock on her door and James appears. ‘Here’s a little something for the journey.’ He hands her a heavy packet, smelling deliriously good.
‘Why? Thank you.’ She grates him with a rare smile and he blushes a little, grabbing her suitcase. With a last look around the spacious room, she follows him outside into the warm Italian sunlight. She’ll miss this. Vulturu is so grey and dark… Granny’s brooding thoughts are interrupted by a sleepy voice.
‘Granny! I was afraid you’d leave without saying goodbye.’
Guiltily Granny hurries over to her granddaughter, enclosing her in a bear hug. They sit on the warm tiles of the stairs and Taïga cuddles up in Granny’s arms.
They sit in silence until the taxi honks downstairs, both wishing that this moment could last forever.
Granny doesn’t look back when she leaves, she doesn’t want anyone to see her tears. What if Shasta decides she wants to keep her daughter? And worse… What if Taïga doesn’t want to come back home – to her?
Part I – End of Chapter 36