The Lincoln was parked discreetly over by the fire pit, and no one saw Umberto placing my old pack in the trunk before opening the back door for me with measured ceremony.
I want to sit in front. Please?
He shook his head in disapproval and opened the passenger door instead. I knew it would all come apart.
But it had never been Aunt Rose who insisted on the formality. Although Umberto was her employee, she had always treated him like family. The gesture, however, was never returned. Whenever Aunt Rose would invite Umberto to join us at the dinner table, he would merely look at her with bemused forbearance, as if it was an ongoing wonder to him why she kept asking and just somehow didnt get it. He ate all his meals in the kitchen, always had, always would, and not even the name of sweet Jesusspoken in rising exasperationcould persuade him to come and sit down with us, even at Thanksgiving.
Aunt Rose used to dismiss Umbertos peculiarity as a European thing and smoothly segue into a lecture about tyranny, liberty, and independence that would inevitably culminate in her pointing a fork at us and snorting, and that is why we are not going to Europe on vacation. Especially Italy. End of story. Personally, I was fairly certain that Umberto preferred to eat alone simply because he considered his own company vastly superior to what we had to offer. There he was, serene in the kitchen, with his opera, his wine, and his perfectly ripened block of Parmesan cheese, while weAunt Rose, me, and Janicebickered and shivered in the drafty dining room. Given the option, I would have lived every minute of every day in the kitchen, too.
As we drove through the dark Shenandoah Valley that night, Umberto told me about Aunt Roses last hours. She had died peacefully, in her sleep, after an evening of listening to all her favorite Fred Astaire songs, one crackling record after another. Once the last chord of the last piece had died out, she had stood up and opened the French doors to the garden outside, perhaps wanting to breathe in the honeysuckle one more time. As she stood there, eyes closed, Umberto told me, the long lace curtains had fluttered round her spindly body without a sound, as if she was already a ghost.
Did I do the right thing? she had asked, quietly.
Of course you did, had been his diplomatic answer.
it was midnight by the time we rolled into Aunt Roses driveway. Umberto had already warned me that Janice had arrived from Florida that afternoon with a calculator and a bottle of champagne. That did not, however, explain the second jock-mobile parked right in front of the entrance.
I sincerely hope, I said, taking my pack out of the trunk before Umberto could get to it, that is not the undertaker. No sooner had I said the words than I winced at my own flippancy. It was completely unlike me to talk like that, and it only ever happened when I came within earshot of my sister.
Casting but a glance at the mystery car, Umberto adjusted his jacket the way one does a bulletproof vest before combat. I fear there are many kinds of undertaking.
As soon as we stepped through the front door of the house, I saw what he meant. All the large portraits in the hallway had been taken down and were now standing with their backs to the wall like delinquents before a firing squad. And the Venetian vase that had always stood on the round table beneath the chandelier was already gone.
Hello? I yelled, feeling a surge of rage that I had not felt since my last visit. Anyone still alive?
My voice echoed through the quiet house, but as soon as the noise died down I heard running feet in the corridor upstairs. Yet despite her guilty rush, Janice had to make her usual slow-motion appearance on the broad staircase, her flimsy summer dress emphasizing her sumptuous curves far better than had she worn nothing at all. Pausing for the world press, she tossed back her long hair with languid self-satisfaction and sent me a supercilious smile before commencing her descent. Lo and behold, she observed, her voice sweetly chilled, the virgitarian has landed. Only then did I notice the male flavor-of-the-week trailing right behind her, looking as disheveled and bloodshot as one does after time alone with my sister.
Excerpted from Juliet by Anne Fortier Copyright © 2010 by Anne Fortier. Excerpted by permission of Ballantine Books, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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From NYT bestselling author Ann Leary
The captivating story of an unconventional New England family.
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