Standing on the marble front step of her family’s Miami mansion, Gisella tapped her designer footwear, adjusted her sunglasses and blocked out the bright spring day. She breathed deeply and shuffled the bags hanging from her toned arms.
At the end of the driveway, her brother Antonio revved his red convertible’s souped-up engine and pounded the dashboard in time to blaring rock music. Miami traffic streamed past the estate. People stared.
Why can’t he just leave? She marveled at his arrogance, but she kept her expression neutral and her phone in her pocket. He was the youngest of her two siblings, and he had the stocky, tan physique her male family members prized. He also had a propensity to wear outlandish suits, a revolving door of girlfriends and a sophomoric sense of humor. If he caught her taking a selfie in front of the house, he would turn it into a meme, but her account depended on dance stills and teasing hints of glamour. The minute he left the estate, she would take the picture while her hair looked good.
Flexing her toes, she rifled through the bags on her arms. One duffle held her ballet kit, another tote functioned as a purse and the bags from her morning shopping spree hiked her credit card bill. Instead of feeling guilty for the extravagance, she admired her long, lean legs.
Her form allowed her to excel as a professional ballerina, but she worried she had the coltish naivety to match her legs. When would she work up the nerve to demand a driver’s license and stop relying on Antonio for transportation? Every time she talked about her license, her father pouted and asked what more he could do to ensure her comfort.
If her mother had lived, Gisella’s life might be so different.
A car horn honked. A woman blew kisses. “Antonio!!”
He ignored the entreaty, let the engine rumble and scanned the beachside traffic. His muscled forearm hung over the door, and he tapped his fingers against the expensive paint job. Milky fingerprints marred the convertible’s finish.
A second Miami driver slowed to gawk at the handsome, moneyed mobster. A trailing car smashed the vehicle’s lights. Horns blared and doors flew open.
Releasing the engine’s pent-up energy, Antonio took advantage of the distraction and roared across two lanes of traffic.
Gisella rolled her eyes and snapped the picture she needed, but she doubted her high-gloss smile was worth the price of the photograph.
Riding home with her brother from dance rehearsals and a shopping spree, she had stared out of the window and listened to him complain about women and their fickle ways. His problems never changed, but the consistency soothed her. If he spent more time listening to the women, he would have fewer problems with them.
For instance, she had wanted to close her eyes and rest, but Antonio couldn’t take a hint. As soon as she made Principal Dancer, she could move out of her father’s house and make rent, but she would have to stop shopping like a mafia princess.
Squaring her shoulders, she faced her father’s front door. Most Miami residents painted their doors to ward off humidity’s warping effects. Papà imported Cocobolo heartwood and exposed the precious wood to the elements. His house could grace the cover of Architectural Digest, but his acceptance in local society depended on discretion. Biscayne Bay would freeze over before he opened the mansion’s doors to gawking strangers.
Every piece of furniture came with a decorator’s commission, authenticity papers and a cataloged serial number. The insurance company knew the exact cost of her father’s investment, and if the house burned, they’d be wise to pay up.
She appreciated the wealth, but its origins bothered her. Her sweet Papà, Gregorio Vitella, ran drugs from South America up the Eastern shoreline. She feared that enjoying the proceeds made her complicit in his crimes.
Pressed by a tipsy ballet friend, she’d admitted the concession that let her sleep at night. Her father’s legitimate insurance company probably covered her bills, but how could a person separate good money from bad people—and where did that distinction place her?
Pushing open the door, she scanned the marble foyer and dropped her bags, but a green potted palm, a black concert piano and an excruciatingly expensive console table provided little company. The console table rested on acrobatic loops of brass. Beneath a glass top, python skin gleamed with a subtle sheen, and she wondered if the piece’s black crystal pulls would make an interesting jewelry set. Opening a drawer, she checked for mail and flipped through the family correspondence. “Come stai, Papà?”
Her question echoed.
Raising her head, she set down the mail and waited.
A hidden white paneled door opened. Martin, the butler, emerged, wearing the formal black suit and crisp white shirt required for his service. He’d perfected the practiced, subservient gaze on his own. She’d grown to like him, but she wondered how long he would last in the household.
“Signorina Gisella, your father is in his study.”
Keeping a bright smile on her face, she handed Martin her shopping bags and kept her purse on her shoulder. “Thanks. I’ll freshen up and join him.”
The man couldn’t speak ten words of Italian. As soon as staff members picked up a basic understanding of the language, her father fired them. Smart members played dumb. Gisella found her allies among them, but she’d learned to mind her comments, too.
Ducking into the gilt-papered bathroom off the foyer, she pinched her cheeks, added lipstick and prepared to act like a dutiful daughter. Her life revolved around the Miami Ballet Company, beachside runs and formal dinners, but in her father’s house, she would forever be ‘Gigi’.
Bracing her hands on the sink, she tilted her head. Her loving father owned Florida’s biggest commercial real estate company, Cosmica Insurance Holdings, but he also ran the Florida branch of the Italian mob.
He wore a suit to school functions, but when business soured at home, he rolled up his shirtsleeves, and the gentlemanly look faded. When she had been ten, she’d witnessed the reality of his business dealings through a crack in the study door. She’d never seen his victim again, and she’d kept her observations to herself—but she listened.
When classmates at her parochial school asked what her father did for work, she parroted the company line. “CIH offers property insurance, casualty insurance and value-added insurance services across twenty southeastern states.”
They looked impressed.
Why shouldn’t they? Every new homeowner in Florida received a direct mailing touting CIH’s low rates and friendly staff. The mailings glossed over the company’s potential money laundering credentials, but who read the fine print?
Leaving the bathroom, she made her way to the back of the house and to her father’s study. The caviar-black masculine room had views of the pool and heavy leather furniture. Despite a sparking oasis waiting beyond the windows, the room looked like a cave.
Last fall, her father’s interior designer Lisette had joined the family before Sunday dinner. Wearing a pantsuit, she’d sipped a dirty martini and made vague references to former clients. “I prefer to create a visual impact by mixing wood species and texture. That movie star I mentioned”—she sipped her drink—“had a thing for ebony.”
Gisella had wanted to like the woman, but her influence on the house’s décor leaned toward gilt and Hollywood glamour. Having a thing for ebony shocked her as much as Lisette’s cosmetic surgery bill. Once a woman immersed herself in wealth, keeping life entertaining required novelty and a steady flow of cash. “How do you plan to tackle the study?”
Lisette had wrinkled her surgically enhanced nose. “The hospitality industry uses black to create glamour, drama and intimacy. Everyone’s doing it.”
Gisella had sipped her wine and assumed Lisette was doing her father.
Walking across the room, Gisella admitted the study’s black walls created drama, but if her father wanted to scare his minions into compliance, he could pull out the handgun he kept in the desk’s top drawer. To keep her in line, he deployed guilt. ‘What would your mother think?’
She wrinkled her nose.
Walking around the polished walnut desk, she leaned down and pressed a kiss to his cheek. He smelled of black tea, Damascus rose, tobacco and leather. At sixty-five years old, he looked ten years younger. Faint silver streaks threaded his black hair. He could wear chinos and he would still smell like old manners and aged wine caves. “Come è andato il lavoro, Papà?”
“It is what it is.” Continuing in Italian, he set aside his papers. “How was your shopping trip?”
She sat opposite him and crossed her legs. “Fruitful.”
Pulling a stack of receipts from her purse, she slid them across the desk. “The rest will come by email.”
Shrugging, he leaned back in his chair and left the crumpled slips on the table. “Gigi, you’re old enough to drink and old enough to marry.”
She picked at her nails. “Is that so?”
“More than old enough. In the home country…”
Looking up, she tilted her head. “We’re not in the home country.”
He held up a hand. “But if we were, you’d be a bride, and I’d be a grandpa.”
“Ursula is older.”
“Your sister wants to be a nun.”
“So she says.” Looking past his full head of hair, she regretted her outburst and second-guessed her decision to come home after rehearsal. If she’d stayed out and shared a drink with Antonio, she’d have to listen to his stories and give up her evening run. She couldn’t hide from her father. He financed her life and provided patronage for her art. Looking at him, she softened her expression and recalled the sunlit days he’d spent with her and Ursula. “You’re too young to be a grandpa.”
“Hear me out,” he said.
She exhaled. Drinks with Antonio sounded better. At least he planned to fuck up his own life instead of hers.
When her mother had drowned off the Amalfi Coast, Papà had whisked his three children to Miami and begun a new life on the Atlantic’s eastern coast. Given how he’d lost his wife, one would think he would have chosen Oklahoma, but he knew how to make money along a coastline. Aunts and nannies had sopped up spilled milk, but when he’d come home at night, he’d kissed her cheek and left his old-world scent against her shoulder.
Some nights, remembering the smell of roses and leather, she recalled how much consistency mattered to children and old men. “Yes, Papà.”
“I have a series of eligible young men lined up. You will give them each an evening and tell me which man suits you.”
“What if I prefer women?”
“Gisella Santa Maria Vitella!” He slammed his palm against the desk.
A vase rattled but resisted gravity’s lure.
She rolled her eyes and stood. The dates her father arranged would be insurance agents or mob hit men. She couldn’t decide which option she found more appalling. “I can find my own dates, Daddy.”
He gripped the leather armrests. “Sit down.”
Lowering her frame, she kept her back straight and maintained eye contact. The company’s Artistic Director scared her more than her father did, but his familiar expectations could surprise her. Cosseted and pampered, she enjoyed an easy life until she slammed into a glass wall keeping her from enjoying life’s stunning vistas. Eventually, she found an exit, and her father acquiesced to her wishes.
He cleared his throat. “You’re too old to prance around the stage in a tutu.”
She wet her lips. “Too old to dance, and too young to procreate. What’s a girl to do? Marriage is a contract, isn’t it? Do I get a lawyer?”
He raised an eyebrow.
Outside the mansion’s walls, ballet defined her life and gave her predictability. At fifteen, she’d enrolled in the company school and trained for three years. After graduation, she’d joined the ballet as a School Apprentice and spent two years in the trenches before joining the corps de ballet. Three years later, she’d made Soloist, then Principal Soloist. The lure of becoming Principal Dancer kept her focused.
The goal also kept her father off her back. It was like he’d made a deal with his six-year-old daughter, and he refused to back out of his agreement. For the last twenty years, he’d sponsored the company’s performances, but rarely attended them.
Last month, she’d celebrated her twenty-fifth birthday. Most dancers stopped dancing professionally between thirty-five and forty years of age. She’d known her father wouldn’t give her that much time and would propose an arranged marriage. She might have to accept it, but an IUD would buy her time to achieve her dreams. Crossing her arms, she settled back into the chair.
Sometimes, she lay awake at night and imagined defying her father, but he killed the men who disobeyed him, and she lacked a mother to intercede on her behalf. Caught between ideals and reality, she walked a narrow line and kept her gaze focused on the future. Sometimes, she dreamed of her mother, but she wondered how much time had reshaped the memories.
She remembered holding her breath under water to watch fish, but now she hated to swim. Her inability to trust her memories undermined her faith in herself, and her father’s coddling approach undermined her achievements. She could dance across the stage playing a role, but striking out on her own meant vulnerability. Until she knew she could succeed, she would humor his demands. “I hear you, Papà. Who’s the first victim?”
“You will love Marco.”
Tilting her head to the side, she rubbed her scalp. “Doubtful, but tell me where to report.”
“You’re a good girl, and you’ll make me proud. I’ve tried to raise you the old way, but your aunts can’t replace your mother. I’m getting old. You’ve had leeway to pursue your dancing, but tomorrow evening at eight, you and Marco will dine.”
She shook her head. “Not tomorrow, Papà. I organized a beach cleanup.”
“You hate the water. Find someone else to pick up trash…”
Holding up her hand, she interrupted his mandate. “CIH is sponsoring the event.”
His forehead wrinkled.
Maybe he was getting old. “Perhaps Tuesday?” she offered.
His nostrils flared. “Tuesday.”
Standing, she rounded the desk, pressed a kiss against his smooth cheek and let his scent calm her frustration. How many times had he threatened her dancing? How many times had he shipped her back to Italy to take in the old country? Here she remained. Marco and the remaining suitors would fizzle out, and she’d continue dancing. “Ti amo, Papino.”
He pulled back. “You will go on this date.”
“Sure.” Picking up the receipts, she dropped them in the trashcan. “I have plenty of new dresses to wear.”
She winked. Walking out of the office, she let her clicking heels say everything she held back. The marble-backed rhythm sounded so final, like the sound of a bullet fired at close range. Violence hung over her family like a constant threat. If her father understood anything, he understood endings. Keeping him focused on new beginnings remained her job.
Opening the door to her room, she shucked the heels for soft slippers, settled into a stretch and let the music guide her.
Ursula opened the door connecting their rooms and pushed a shoe out of the way. “I thought dancers didn’t wear high heels.”
“They do when they want salespeople to take them seriously.”
Dropping to the floor, Ursula lolled her head. “You’d think a black credit card and a bodyguard would be enough to get their attention.”
“You’d think.” Gisella deepened her stretch and puzzled through Ursula’s recent transformation. Her sister’s dark brown hair, olive skin and generous curves could rock a bikini, but lately she’d insisted on dressing like a martyr. If Ursula deviated from her prayers and walked into a boutique, the salespeople might press the panic button. Gisella suppressed a smile.
Her sister had always been serious, but her devotion had deepened in the last six months. After Sunday mass, Gisella had known why. No longer content to hide behind her hymnal, Ursula had stared at Father Pietro, the hot new priest. The man of the cloth must have given Ursula a bit of pious encouragement.
Gisella shrugged and laid her torso along her leg. If Ursula wanted to plan her life around vespers, God love her. “How was your day?”
“Good. Lots of praying, solemnity, hymns and stuff.”
Gisella raised her head. “And stuff?”
Ursula swallowed. “Church stuff.”
“Maybe you could put the stuff on hold and help me cleanup the beach tomorrow. Every set of hands helps.”
“Sure.” Ursula stood. “I have a few hours to spare.”
Watching her sister slip into the next room, Gisella judged her sister’s choices. Dancing made her feel alive. Why would any woman dedicate her life to an organization that spent so much time imagining what came after death?