A meeting in the park . . .
“My dear Parthenope, it’s such a glorious day. How charming of you to invite me to take the air with you and out of town too. The ferry ride was just the thing to clear my head. And a walk in gardens that are not surrounded by odiferous water and alleys will be heavenly.” Sarina settled back into the comfortable cushions of the carriage with a contented sigh. “Preparations for the ball seem to be unending. I do not know how Lucia manages to keep up her energy. It seems she never stops!”
“Indeed, Sarina. It is all too true. I had hoped we three would be able to steal a few hours to have tea this week.” Parthenope said. “And perhaps a little gossip to sweeten it. I shall suggest to Vittoria that she invite Bella to do some last minute shopping so that we may be quite unfettered.”
“Ah, yes, your volatile niece. Has she selected her costume? This is her first masquerade, is it not?”
“Yes, her first masked ball. And yes, her costume is nearly completed.’ Parthenope’s mouth twisted. “She is to be a unicorn, complete with tail and horn. I pray she does not skewer someone in the course of a dance. Particularly the young man who has captured her fancy . . .” As the two women chatted, the carriage drove through expansive woodland, to a central area that was more elaborately laid-out and landscaped. Lush with flowers and blossoming trees, it was dotted with comfortable benches set along neatly kept paths. Leaning forward, suddenly, she rapped the side of the carriage with her parasol. “Driver, stop please!” She turned to Sarina. “Let us walk in the park and take in the scenery.”
They alighted the carriage and began to walk. Sarina was silent for a moment. Then, hesitantly, she turned to Neroni. “Parthenope . . . this is difficult, but . . . . . . does it seem to you that Lucia has been distracted of late? I mean, more distracted than would be accounted for by the ball preparations?”
“Distracted?” Parthenope queried.
“Yes. It has just seemed as though a particularly thorny problem has been weighing on her. And the other day, I glimpsed her and Sir Percy deep in conversation. They didn’t see me at first, but when they did, Lucia blushed.”
“Perhaps they are . . . ” Parthenope said delicately. Then, sighing, “No, I will not pretend to misunderstand you. I have sensed undercurrents and the air seems fraught with secrets. In fact, my dear Sarina . . . ” She looked penetratingly at her friend. “If we are to be frank . . .” she broke off at the sight of a slight, masculine figure who was tipping his hat in their direction. “Oh!” she said in an undertone. “That is my dear friend, Rodolfo West. He is to escort Vittoria and myself to the ball. I do not believe you have met. Pray allow me to introduce you.” She performed the introductions and Bacigalupo (as Parthenope knew him best) swept off his hat and made an elaborate leg.
“I am fortunate, indeed, to encounter you this day,” he said. Sarina detected a slight and unusual inflection to his melodious voice. Intrigued, she looked into a face that, although far from handsome, radiated strength and humor. A slight frisson went up her spine. Turning to Parthenope with a smile, Bacigalupo alias the intriguing Rodolfo West said, “Perhaps I may be allowed the pleasure of escorting you ladies on a short stroll in the gardens?”
The ladies assented and offering an arm to each of them, Bacigalupo/West escorted them down one of the paths, heading toward an elaborate fountain. Parthenope clapped her hands and rushed forward. “I adore fountains and this one is quite splendid! I must just take a closer look at the carving.”
Sarina moved to join her, but was halted by a slight restraining pressure on her arm. Bacigalupo said, quietly, “I believe there is something that may interest you more.” With a slight movement of his head, he directed her attention to a large oak tree with low-hanging branches that shaded a small bench and almost completely concealed the tall figure standing beneath it. Heart beating suddenly faster, Sarina uttered a small cry of mingled astonishment and joy. Eagerly, she moved toward the tree . . .