This month, we’re reading:

THE CHOCOLATIER

Jan Moran

A young widow. A husband she thought she knew. Will a chocolatier’s secret destroy the family left behind?

San Francisco, 1953: Heartbroken over the mysterious death of her husband, Celina Savoia, a second-generation chocolatière, resolves to take their young son to Italy’s shimmering Amalfi coast to introduce him to his father’s family. Just as she embarks on a magical, romantic life of making chocolate by the sea surrounded by a loving family, she begins to suspect that her husband had a dark secret—forged in the final days of WWII—that could destroy the relationships she’s come to cherish.

While a second chance at love is tempting, the mystery of her husband’s true identity thwarts her efforts. Challenged to pursue the truth or lose the life she’s come to love, Celina and her late husband’s brother, Lauro, must trace the past to a remote, Peruvian cocoa region to face the deceit that threatens to shatter their lives.

This title will run until January 31.

Chapter One

San Francisco, 1953

One chocolate truffle had changed her destiny. Indeed, it was one of Celina’s best—a silky cocoa powder-dusted truffle filled with raspberry-infused, dark chocolate ganache and enrobed with a couverture, a layer of rich chocolate that melted optimally with the warmth of the body.

After she had offered one to a weary, dark-haired soldier who had just returned from the European front, he introduced himself as Tony Savoia, an Italian immigrant whose family had owned and operated Cioccolata Savoia before war rationing had made sugar difficult to obtain. The truffle had restored light to his eyes. Though she knew little else of the charming, impetuous man who wooed her with murmurs of love, they married within a few months.

“That’s right. Cioccolata Savoia in Naples, Italy,” Celina said to the international operator, trying to keep the crack of emotion out of her voice. She repeated the foreign telephone number to the world-renowned chocolate company and hung up. The operator would call back when the connection was ready.

A telegram wouldn’t do, not for this type of news.

Anxious to reach Tony’s father, Celina had waited until midnight to place a call to his company. She perched on a little wooden chair in the narrow hallway of the tiny apartment near Union Square, poised to answer quickly to keep the trilling ring from waking her young son. Turning up the collar of her flannel robe against the chill night air that bathed her neck, she clutched a piece of notepaper and gazed out the living room window at the city lights that lined the sloping hillside street as it fell toward the bay. The brightly lit sign of Ghirardelli, the chocolaterie that had been serving up chocolate for the past hundred years in San Francisco, illuminated the Golden Gate Strait. How many times had she gazed at that sign, a beacon of what she, too, might achieve with hard work? Yet now, her future seemed as foggy as the mist hovering over the city.

Months ago, Celina had written to her husband’s family in Italy, notifying them as she felt she should, regardless of Tony’s strained relationship with his parents. Just as he’d warned her, they had never replied. Had they even received her letter? She felt a duty to inform them, as well as reaching out on behalf of little Marco—her son and their grandchild—even though Tony had always forbidden contact with them. That had been his only rule.

She drew a trembling hand across her forehead. Six months. How could that be? Every day since then had been an exercise in suppressing her grief to get through the day. She felt adrift without her husband, without a real home or family. Through the open window, foghorns bleated in the distance as if to signal danger in the murky depths of her memories.

A second letter she’d sent to Tony’s parents had also been returned to her just last week. Invalid address. Undeliverable. She’d even wondered if his parents were still living, though she knew his family’s company had resumed operations in Italy after the war. Among connoisseurs of chocolate, Cioccolata Savoia was famous. From Torino to Amalfi, experts lauded the family’s legendary chocolatiers for fusing the smooth, delicate flavor of Criollo chocolate with Sorrentino and Amalfitano lemons. Chocolate aficionados around the world had celebrated the reopening.

When the telephone jangled on the wall, Celina snatched the receiver. “Hello?”

The telephone line clicked.

“Who is this?” an angry male voice demanded. “Who is calling this time of night?”

She considered herself lucky to have a telephone line at all, though she had to share a party line. Hearing her son whimpering, she cupped her hand around her mouth and the receiver, shielding the noise.

“Mr. Albertson, this is Mrs. Savoia,” she said, lowering her voice. “I’m sorry, but I have to place a call to Italy.” His wife chatted on the phone so much that Celina could hardly get a call through when she needed to. “Please go back to bed.”

“Can’t do that during daylight hours? Some of us have to sleep.”

Mr. Albertson muttered something else Celina chose to ignore. If Tony had been around, he would’ve leapt to her defense. At the moment, an argument wasn’t worth it.

“Excuse me,” the operator intoned. “I can connect you to Italy now.”

Celina clutched the phone. “Mr. Albertson, please hang up, this is important.” At the sound of the disconnection, she blew out a breath in relief.

“Hold, please. I have your party in Italy. Connecting now.”

As the operator switched the call across transatlantic lines, Celina heard a series of clicks. Moments later, a tinny voice echoed toward her.

“Pronto? Cioccolata Savoia. Pronto?”

“Posso parlare con il Signor Savoia, per favore,” Celina said, raising her voice as she read from the paper she held, asking to speak to her father-in-law. “Sto chiamando dagli Stati Uniti.” I’m calling from the United States. She had visited the library and used an Italian dictionary to form the words she would need to say. She’d been practicing how to deliver such dreadful news in a language with which she struggled. When she spoke Italian, Tony had often laughed—lovingly, at least—at her efforts.

“Si, si. Un momento per favore.”

Celina could hear crinkling and bustling, and she imagined that the secretary was rushing to find Tony’s father. She drew in a breath to quell her nerves. This call wasn’t one any parent wanted to receive.

“Lui non è qui.”

Pent up air surged from her lungs. He wasn’t there. She was half-frustrated, half-relieved. This call wasn’t one anyone wanted to make either.

“Qual è il tuo numero di telefono, per favore?”

Slowly, Celina recited her number. The woman said something else, but Celina couldn’t make it out. “Mi dispiace, non capisco.”

After saying good-bye, Celina returned the receiver to its hook and stared from the window.

Non capisco. She still didn’t understand why Tony had to be taken from them, repeating the pattern of her childhood, yet ruminating on this regretful coincidence wouldn’t bring him back. As a parent, her son depended on her. She no longer had the luxury of childhood, fretting about her turn-out in ballet class or practicing her piano scales as she had before her father had died and her mother had returned to work full time as a chocolatière. Now she knew how her mother had felt. Resolutely, she rose to prepare for bed.

She was in a deadened sleep when the telephone rang again.

Recognizing her party line ringtone, Celina whipped off the duvet and bounded toward the phone, her feet slapping the oak hardwood floor. Marco cried out as she passed his room, but she couldn’t stop to comfort him.

“Hello?” Pushing her tangled hair from her forehead, she stood barefoot, shivering from the damp morning chill off the bay that seeped through her cotton gown. The moon illuminated the room, glancing off trees that lined the street outside and projecting alien shapes into her home. “Pronto?” She held her breath. Eerie shadows swirled before her like wispy wraiths twisting in a silent, moon shadow dance. Turning from the window, she hugged an arm around her midsection and rested her forehead on the wall. “Hello?”

The line crackled, and from half a globe away a man’s deep voice reverberated through the connection. “This is Lauro Savoia. May I help you?”

“I called earlier.” He spoke in accented English, but the smooth, rich tenor of his voice made Celina grapple for the wooden chair. Trying to dispel the nocturnal fog from her brain, she rubbed her eyes.

“Mi dispiace, it sounds like I woke you.” He hesitated. “You are in New York, no?”

“San Francisco.”

A small silence ensued. “Sono le cinque di mattina. Forgive me, it must be five in the morning. I will call back later. It is too early for business.”

“This isn’t a business call,” she blurted out. Squeezing her eyes, she struggled for composure. “I’m calling about your son, Tony.”

The line fell silent, and Celina thought she had lost the connection. “Are you still there?”

“Sì. I am Lauro Savoia. Do you mean Antonino? He is my brother…”

Brother? Tony had never mentioned any siblings, but maybe this was better. And he spoke English. “Yes, Antonino.” Tony was her husband’s nickname. But before she could go on, Lauro’s voice rippled across the line.

“I cannot help you,” he said. “Antonino went missing at the end of the war.”

“No, that’s not right. He was in America.” Her words tumbled out. “We were married. We have a son. But something terrible happened, and I thought his family should know.” Celina paused before delivering the words she knew would break his heart, just as they had devastated her when she’d received the telephone call that foggy evening.

“Hurry up, girl.” On the other side of the glass case filled with handmade chocolates, a plump woman in a woolen overcoat snapped her fingers at her. “I haven’t got all day.”

Jarred from her thoughts, Celina blinked at the imperious cook who stood before her. Mrs. McCloskey, who worked for the Davis family’s eldest son, tapped the tip of her umbrella on the French tiled floor of La Petite Maison du Chocolat, a jewel-box of a shop that catered to Nob Hill aristocrats. Chastising herself, Celina yanked her mind from its wretched recesses, where she tried to keep herself from going day after day. Nothing good would come from that.

“Yes, ma’am,” Celina said, returning her attention to the tray of creamy fruit-filled chocolates that sat before her. Scents of raspberry and apricot teased her nose. With a deft hand, she nestled each silky delicacy with care into a cardboard box.

Celina had grown up with the aroma of chocolate wafting through her home. As a young woman, her mother had studied at a chocolaterie in Paris before the war, and she had taught Celina how to make handcrafted praliné or truffles, the molded or rounded chocolates filled with delectable centers, such as caramelized nut paste of noisettes or amandes. For hers, Celina often chose apricot, cherry, salted caramel, cream liqueurs—or any other filling that might catch her fancy. Lately, she had been experimenting with the delicate flavor of green tea she’d found in San Francisco’s Chinatown.

She secured the lid on the box and unfurled a length of twine. Perhaps she’d bring a treat home to little Marco today, though not one of these chocolates. He’d surely like one of the miniature bunnies she’d made this morning. Without his father around, she indulged the six-year-old perhaps a little more than she should in an effort to bring a smile to his solemn face. His grief seemed even deeper than hers, though he had fewer words and ways to express it. Even now, she often heard his quiet sobs in the night. She would hurry in and stroke his back, reassuring him until he fell asleep again.

Reaching for scissors, Celina darted a glance across the busy commercial street to the apartments stacked above the shops. Theirs was a third-floor walkup, a far cry from the gaily painted Victorian home they’d lived in until last year, though she’d sold it for a good price. She couldn’t bear waking in the same bedroom she’d shared with her husband. Returning to work at the chocolaterie where she’d met Tony was hard enough, but at least the job provided for them and kept her mind occupied.

Lifting her gaze, she caught a glimpse of her little boy through a window at a neighbor’s apartment, where he stayed while she worked. Her heart full, she smiled at the sight of him, his head bent over a toy truck. It wasn’t the comfortable life she’d once enjoyed when her days were filled with taking Marco to the park or the bay to watch boats, but it worked for them for now.

Whizzing past her field of vision, a wiry teenaged boy in a uniform and riding a red bicycle jumped the curb and wheeled to a stop at the entrance to her apartment building. She watched as he pushed up his Western Union hat at a rakish angle and pressed the buzzer.

Even now, years since the war had ended, the thought of a telegram still filled her with dread. So many of her uncles and cousins and childhood friends had never returned from foreign shores—their parents informed only by a telegram sent from the Secretary of War. With deepest regret… An involuntary shudder coursed through her. Tony had survived the war, only to lose his life on the Golden Gate Bridge. To this day, she couldn’t understand why he’d gone out so late that night.

If only that man with a thick New York accent hadn’t called. She had no idea who he was. It was almost ten in the evening when she had answered the telephone, and after Tony had spoken to the man, he told her he had to do something. When she asked what, he scowled, saying it was men’s business. Whatever that meant.

Blinking back memories, she clipped the twine.

Mrs. McCloskey cleared her throat. “Those are the missus’ favorites, so I’ll need them on Tuesday and Friday until she gets on to another flavor.”

“Of course,” Celina said, shifting her attention back to her customer.

The woman crossed her arms across her ample bosom. “My missus turns her dainty nose up at my fine meals and then calls for tea and chocolates. I swear she lives on champagne and sweets. Trying to get into the clothes she wore afore the baby. Won’t do no good, I tell her. Once you lose your teeny waistline, it ain’t never coming back.” She pointed the frightful, carved monkey head of an umbrella she’d probably bought in Chinatown toward Celina. “You’ll see someday.”

Celina swept a cordial smile onto her face but offered no reply. After Tony’s death, her lingering baby weight had swiftly fallen off as she’d lost interest in food, cooking only to keep Marco fed and healthy—not that he’d had much appetite either. Though according to her boss, divulging such personal information to customers like Mrs. McCloskey was strictly interdit—verboten, forbidden. Pleasantries, oui. Personal details or gossip, non. Which was fine by her. She placed a finger on the rough twine, double knotting the bow for protection. Most people took her for younger than her years, but these days she felt every bit of her three decades and more.

Celina tucked the box into a bag with care. She truly loved her work. Except when her co-worker Marge was off, or the owner had an engagement, as Monsieur Jean-Jacques did today, she spent most days in the kitchen behind the shop creating new chocolate fantasies and beloved favorites for their clientele. Fine Criollo or Porcelana chocolate made from cacao beans sourced from Venezuela and the more robust Trinitario chocolate sourced from Peru had to be melted slowly to just the right temperature, poured into molds, and decorated by hand.

Some might think the attention to labor tedious, but it appealed to her artistic sense. And she loved seeing the pure delight on faces when people tasted her creations. To share chocolate was to share love; each bon-bon held a piece of her heart.

Besides playing with her son, this was one of the few activities in which she could lose herself. While she worked, images flickered through her mind, and she could hear her mother’s admonitions as clearly as she had as a young girl. Watch it closely, my love. The higher the fat content, the faster it melts. Celina recalled her instruction about the white discoloration that sometimes developed on chocolate—unsightly, though harmless. Careful, covering a cold center will create fat bloom. Too much moisture in the air, you’ll risk sugar bloom. Making truffles was as much a science as an art. Celina missed her mother more these last six months than in the decade since her death during the war.

“Here’s your package, Mrs. McCloskey. Try not to jostle it.” Celina plucked a dark chocolate praliné filled with buttercream she’d made just that morning from the case and placed it on a lacy paper doily. “And something special for you,” she added, challenged to obtain the rare smile from Mrs. McCloskey.

The cook accepted the offering and popped it into her mouth. A strangled expression Celina took to be as close to pleasure as Mrs. McCloskey ever experienced crossed the woman’s face. As the cook pushed her way out, the bell on the door tinkled. Celina pursed her lips. She’d win that woman over yet.

Through the window, Celina noticed the telegram boy pacing as he waited, impatient to be on his way, and she idly wondered who his message was for. Certainly not for her. After the war, she had no family left, save her little boy. Maybe it was for Lizzie LeClerc, the flamboyant young actress who lived across the hall from her and currently had a supporting role in a new stage play at the Geary Theater. If so, Celina was sure she’d hear all about it. At least Lizzie could make her laugh from time to time.

She picked up a cloth to clean smudges from the glass. The door tinkled again, and a young couple stopped to admire a display, exclaiming over the chocolate flights of fancy.

In honor of the beginning of summer, Celina had cut out large shapes of palm trees and sailboats from cardboard and painted them in vivid hues of pink, yellow, and blue to showcase her ornately embellished chocolate eggs fashioned after Richard Cadbury’s original Victorian chocolate egg designs in England. Coral rosebuds, trailing green vines, tiny bluebirds, palm trees, starfish, and sailboats. Similar eggs had been popular at Easter, but these had themes of summer in San Francisco. She had even created a large, molded chocolate Golden Gate Bridge for one party.

Beyond them, she could see the Western Union boy talking to Lizzie. The platinum-blond actress was flirting with the boy and pointing across the street to the chocolaterie. Celina was curious, but she refocused her attention on the couple.

“Imagine these on the table for our party,” the woman said, grasping her husband’s hand. “The children would love them.”

Tipping his hat at Celina, the man said, “Good day. We want to order a dozen of these.”

“Can you create a special presentation?” the woman asked.

“I can put them in a picnic basket lined with checked cloth.” When they agreed, Celina said, “I’ll write up the order for you. When would you like to pick them up?” While she took down their names, the door jangled open.

“Mrs. Savoia?” The Western Union boy clutched a thin envelope.

“That’s right.” Celina signed for the telegram and withdrew a couple of coins from her apron pocket for the boy, who then rushed out. After finishing the couple’s order, she slid onto a stool beside the counter and picked up the telegram. She’d saved the condolence cards she’d received. The wording was always so similar. Deepest sympathy. Our thoughts and prayers. She’d received several late cards from people who had just learned of his death. Bracing herself, she opened the thin envelope.

As she scanned the few typewritten lines stretched across the page, her lips parted in surprise.

We send you our deepest regrets. Parents anxious to meet you. Please come to our home in Amalfi with your son. You are family and welcome here. Will arrange air tickets to Italy. Details to follow. – Lauro Savoia

Tears sprang to her eyes, and Celina crushed the telegram to her chest with joy. Never had she imagined such a response. And now, they’d invited her to Italy to visit. On an airplane, no less. Her heart thudded with excitement. What did she have to stay for here? Nothing. Dabbing her cheeks, she made her decision. She and Marco would go.

Springing from the stool, her mind began to buzz with thoughts of packing and traveling. She wondered how soon they could be off. Pressing her hand to her chest, she broke into a broad smile. Not since Tony had died had she felt such excitement. That’s what she and Marco needed now—a change of scenery, even the chance for happiness again someday. Her son deserved that.

She stopped and caught a glimpse of herself in the mirror, frowning at the gaunt woman whose wavy blond hair was scraped into a bun. Her face was pale and devoid of makeup. Maybe Lizzie could help her freshen her look before she left.

And then a darker thought assailed her as she recalled what Tony had said about his parents. Cold as fish. Full of themselves. Can’t trust them. Although she’d tried to get him to talk more about them, he had stubbornly refused. Were they as mysterious as her husband had been? Only today and tomorrow matter, he’d often said.

Tracing the scars on his skin, she’d understood why some stories were difficult to share. He’d seldom spoken of his U.S. Army service, mainly because he’d worked in military intelligence and his activities were classified as secret, he said. But family was different. Family was forever, or so she’d desperately wanted to believe. As it turned out, their forever had been cut short.

Should I be worried? She reread the telegram. You are family and welcome here. It was sent by Lauro Savoia, the brother Tony had never mentioned. Why hadn’t he? Who was Lauro and what had happened between them?

The thin paper wavered in her hand as trepidation seeped into her mind.

Celina stepped back from the small mirror she’d balanced on the bureau, bobbing up and down to take in the full effect. She’d put on a dark navy wool suit to travel in, along with sensible heels. Next to the mirror were the tickets the Savoia family had sent her, and tomorrow morning, she and Marco would board a transatlantic flight bound for Rome.

Even now, she could hardly believe they were going. Squinting at her reflection, she turned to the side to see her profile. The skirt hung on her. She poked a safety pin through the fabric to take in the fullness.

It will have to do. She drew in a nervous breath. Soon she would meet Tony’s parents and his brother, reopening tender scabs over wounds of grief she felt would never fully heal. She was worried about Marco and concerned about how reliving the funeral would affect him.

Pressing a hand against her pounding heart, she tried to focus on the positive aspect of the journey—Marco would meet his only living grandparents. She hoped they would be kind to him, though she couldn’t help wondering how they would feel about meeting them so long after they should have.

Footsteps tapped behind her, and Lizzie plopped onto the cotton quilt, lacing her fingers behind her platinum waves. Deep, matte red lipstick outlined full pouty lips. “You’re going to Italy looking like that?”

“What’s wrong with it?”

“Nothing, if you’re going to a funeral.”

Celina shot her neighbor a look across her shoulder and sighed.

Lizzie clamped a hand over her mouth. “Oh, I’m so sorry, was that …?

Smoothing a hand over a sleeve, she said, “Actually, I got married in this suit, too. With a white embroidered eyelet blouse and a bouquet of red roses.” So many memories were woven into this cloth.

“You’re kidding, right?”

Celina slid a look of consternation toward her neighbor. Lizzie was just twenty-one years old and had been raised on a farm in Iowa. What a difference the decade between them made sometimes. “Rationing was in effect then. It was considered unpatriotic to wear reams of silk, not that we could get it anyway.”

“A flour sack would have been a happier prospect.”

Celina made a face, concealing her emotions. Shrugging out of the fitted jacket, she hung it in the narrow closet next to a light gray suit, then eased the slim skirt over her full slip. She ran her hand over the dark worsted wool, lowering her eyes to blink back hot tears that threatened to slip over her lashes. The last time she’d worn this suit she’d watched the love of her life being lowered into the cold January earth. After that, she’d never wanted to wear it again, but now she would have to go through the mourning process again in honor to his parents.

Lizzie sat up, hugging her knees through black tights. She’d just come from theater practice and wore a leotard with a dance skirt topped with a black leather jacket. “Don’t you have anything in there that’ll razz their berries?”

“This isn’t a holiday,” Celina said, feeling a little dowdy in comparison. Still, she couldn’t help but smile through her sadness at Lizzie, imagining what it would be like to be that carefree age again. Actors, artists, musicians—Lizzie’s flat was a haven to free-thinkers who had different outlooks on life and unique ways of expressing themselves.

“You should at least try to have some fun after… Why, where I grew up, we had old-fashioned wakes that went on until sunrise. And the drama between all the kin was more than you can imagine.” As if struck by inspiration, Lizzie pushed off the bed. “I’ll be right back.”

Celina watched her rush out. Lizzie was like the younger sister she’d never had. Her friend had never known Tony or his extravagant laughter and generous smile, so Lizzie couldn’t possibly understand the depth of her loss.

Marge was the only one Celina could confide in, after all, Marge had liked Tony from the beginning when they’d met at La Petite Maison du Chocolat, but even a good friend grew tired of misery. Grief was a perpetual yoke to the past, and she was worn out, too.

Stepping out of her shoes and sliding an embroidered robe she’d bought in Chinatown over her slip, she padded down the hallway to check on Marco, who was being awfully quiet in his room. He loved to draw, and she had implored Tony to buy him art supplies for Christmas. His Santa Claus gift was a shiny bicycle, and on Christmas Day Tony had helped Marco onto the bike, trotting alongside him on the lane in front of their old home.

She still recalled everything about those last happy days. After basting the turkey, mashing the potatoes, and making individual chocolate pot de crème for their holiday supper, she’d changed into the emerald green silk dress Tony had surprised her with and stood in the doorway watching, just as she was now, never imagining it would be one of the last times she’d see the two of them together and full of joy.

Marco looked up from the small pine desk Tony had made for him. She crossed the room and peered over his shoulder. He’d been drawing the three of them again. Daddy was in every picture, and it broke her heart each time he showed her his artwork.

She paused, swallowing a sudden surge of emotion. Every day she pushed aside her feelings in an effort to function, superficially, like everyone else. “That’s really nice, honey.”

Sucking in his lower lip in doubt, he looked up at her. “Daddy’s eyes were blue, weren’t they?”

“Like yours.”

“I’m forgetting what he looked like.”

Another stab to the heart. She hugged Marco and rocked him, and he wrapped his arms tightly around her neck. “You don’t have to have a picture to remember his love for you.”

Though visual mementos would have helped, that much she knew. How she wished she’d insisted on taking photos with Tony. But he’d always ducked away from cameras.

How could such a self-possessed man be so sensitive to photographs of himself? Tony’s scars were part of who he was, not what she saw when she looked at him.

“Get a load of these,” Lizzie hollered as she burst through the hallway. “And look who I found coming up the stairs.”

Celina kissed Marco’s cheek and released him to continue his drawing. As she stepped into the hallway, she saw Marge huffing toward her.

“I swear, that girl has enough energy for the two of us,” Marge said.

Pushing her wispy, gray-shot brown hair from her forehead, Marge plopped a weathered brown leather suitcase onto the bed and opened it. She still wore a dark blue cotton dress, her uniform at La Petite Maison du Chocolat, but she’d removed the crisp white apron.

“You might as well have this suitcase,” Marge said. “It needs to get out and travel, do what it’s meant to do. Lord knows I ain’t going anywhere any time soon.”

“Thank you,” Celina said, embracing the older woman who had been like a mother to her. “We’ll only be gone a couple of weeks.”

“Just bring me back something Italian, like a handsome man.” Marge sighed. “But chocolates will do.”

“Promise I will.”

Lizzie crowded into the small bedroom, and in her arms was a riot of colorful satins and silks. “The party has arrived.”

“Gracious,” Celina exclaimed. “What on earth is all this?

“The costume mistress was cleaning out the old costumes.” Lizzie flung a white feather boa into the air. “Get a load of these. Bound to be something here you can wear to liven things up. It’s Italy, after all.”

“Lizzie, I can’t possibly…” Celina began, but she had to admit some of the dresses were stunning.

A flaming red flapper dress, a sleek black dress with full, satin purple sleeves and a matching flounce, a summery cotton frock with a cheerful red poppy print, and a musketeer’s gold-trimmed jacket tumbled out of the pile of clothing. A mound of scarves fluttered onto the bed.

Marge fingered the frayed, tasseled edge of a silk jacquard scarf in shades of amethyst and emerald green. “This is lovely. It’s easily mended.”

“Perfect for her.” Lizzie tossed it around Celina’s shoulders. The fringe added drama, sweeping almost to the floor. “Voila!”

“That’s a showstopper,” Marge said, her eyes growing wide as Lizzie swept Celina’s hair high onto her head.

“You’re a star,” Lizzie said. “Start acting like one.”

“Listen to you. You’ll be a director in no time.” Glancing at herself in the mirror, Celina burst out laughing at the sight of herself in a Chinese robe and a scarf that could only be called theatrical.

Marge and Lizzie joined in, and soon the three friends were chuckling together.

It was the first time Celina could recall laughing since last New Year’s.

“I haven’t room in that suitcase for much,” she said as Lizzie folded a couple of garments and whipped the scarf from her neck. “Where would I wear that?”

“You could take the train and go sightseeing with Marco,” Marge said. “Italian women are very stylish.”

“The men, too,” Lizzie added, pursing her lips. “Maybe you’ll come home with a handsome fella.”

“I’ve got first dibs on the fella,” Marge said.

“Wow, you have to take this.” Lizzie reached into the closet for an emerald green silk dress.

“But not the boa.” Celina plucked the feathery mound from the open suitcase.

“Why, this color is beautiful,” Marge said, running her hand over the rich silk fabric with reverence. “You must take it. I’ll fold it for you.”

Celina grew quiet, watching as Marge carefully folded the dress Tony had given her, and she’d worn only that one day. She didn’t protest.

It’s what Tony would have wanted. He would have liked her wearing his last gift to her to meet his parents.

Or would he?

She couldn’t help the uneasy feeling that threaded through her, stretching her nerves taut with apprehension.

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