First Blush by Reina Torres

ONE

1945 – New York City

Santo Marini was barely holdinghimself together as he waited for his bride. He’d waited long enough. He’d fallen in love with Vera Donato from the moment he set eyes on her, sitting in his mother’s living room, having tea and cookies with the women who lived in their building.

Vera had been thin then, too thin for his peace of mind, and even though his mother had scolded him and told him to leave the women to their business, he stood there, watching the beautiful woman who seemed too nervous to eat. His mother had given in after a few not-so-subtle jokes about his determination to stay and introduced him to Vera Donato. Her father, his mother explained, had sent his daughter to them in fear of what might happen if she stayed in Italy with the war burning through Europe.

She hadn’t said a word at that, but Santo had seen the single silver tear that slipped free of her eye and coursed down her cheek.

Santo pulled his handkerchief from his pocket, thankful that he had put one there that day, and crossed the room to offer it to her.

From the moment her fingertips touched his, he’d been lost. In love. Devoted to the woman sitting there, exhausted and teary, and determined to make her happy.

It turned out that it wasn’t so easy to woo a woman on the run from destruction. With her parents and siblings still in Italy, she was constantly worried about them and what they were facing. Santo became a clown and a hopeless romantic bringing her flowers and little gifts, anything to make her smile and to ease the dark circles that marred her skin, and to put on the weight that she’d lost crossing the ocean.

It seemed that his antics hadn’t gone unnoticed by his tight-knit community, and by the time he’d found himself on one knee, serenading her from the street, under her window, everyone knew that he had lost all of his senses, or rather, his bachelor ways.

Everything took a turn when his lovely fiancée burst into tears when he gave her a ring. His bride-to-be wrapped her arms around him and sobbed, wondering aloud in her endearing mix of Italian and English, if her father might be able to see her married someday. Perhaps even walk her down the aisle.

And he knew, in that moment, that there was only one way that might happen. If the war was over.

Santo Marini signed up the next day, joining the army, headed for Italy.

Looking back on his decision, he’d been crazy to do it, but he couldn’t stand the thought of looking into Vera’s eyes on their wedding day knowing that she wanted her father there and he could have done something.

Now, he stood there, in the crowded living room on the second floor of the building where he’d lived nearly all of his life, in a new suit that thankfully hid all of the physical scars on his body. He could only pray that she wouldn’t see the other scars lurking in his eyes and run away.

He wouldn’t blame her.

He wasn’t the same man who left almost two years ago. Thinner. Harder.

The one thing that hadn’t changed was how much he loved her. That had grown and taken on a life of its own. He didn’t just love Vera, she was everything to him.

A soft sound echoed in his ears, and he lifted his chin to see the vision at the end of the hall.

“…bella angelo…”

He heard the words and nodded.

Walking toward him, on his father’s arm, was Vera Donato. His lovely angel. Midway to him, he had to fight off the urge to tell her to run. Tell her to turn away and save herself from a life tied to him, but he couldn’t do it.

It wasn’t love that kept him quiet.

It was need.

Selfishness.

A desperation that he wasn’t proud of. But there it was.

He needed Vera.

So, when his father put Vera’s hand in his, Santo took her hand knowing how wrong it was to bind her to him. Because if she knew what was locked up inside him: the pain, the doubt, the guilt… she would never want him as a husband.

He wanted to be a bigger man. A better man.

But that just wasn’t the case.

He loved Vera more than his next breath, but he couldn’t let her go. Not when it was all he could do not to pull her into his arms and kiss her until all the darkness went away.

* * *

Standing there,in front of the Marini family and all of their friends, Vera couldn’t help but feel alone. From the moment that Santo had returned home from the war, she’d felt alone. The activity around her had gone from a worried lull to a fever pitch of joy.

She felt that joy too.

But she also felt the deep-rooted pangs of loneliness.

Santo had sent word from Italy during his time there. He’d sent word to her family and received news back. From a neighbor.

Her father, mother, and brothers… all gone.

She still had Santo.

That’s what she told herself.

That’s what his family had assured her.

His mother Elda and his sister Sofia had been in that morning to help her prepare. Help her dress for her wedding. The two women with open and loving hearts had praised her over her fine handiwork in beading the bodice of the dress. The delicate stitching of the beadwork on her veil earned her more than a few compliments, but she had been too nervous to say much in response. She managed a few hesitant smiles and her cheeks heated with happiness. She loved them both, loved the whole Marini family as her own, but when they’d left the room, Vera had found herself seated on the edge of the bed, fighting back tears for her mother. Wishing she could have her there for just a moment, to quell her fears and wish her joy. All she had now, were memories.

When Eduardo had come to get her and walk her down their makeshift aisle, he’d almost reduced her to tears with his quiet praise. The words he’d uttered, thick and coarse from the tears gathering in his eyes, sounded so much like her father’s that she’d had a hard time holding her own tears at bay.

He’d called her daughter and pressed a chaste kiss to the crown of her head before he lowered the veil over her face and that’s when they left the room.

Vera kept her hands lightly on the arm that Eduardo had offered her. It was better than crinkling the fabric of her skirt at her side, or nervously fiddling with the beading on her bodice. She was finally going to marry the man she loved, it just couldn’t happen fast enough for her. Being the center of attention had never been something she wanted. She wanted to be the center of one man’s attention and even though she could see him standing in the living room of his parent’s apartment, she was still too far away from him for her comfort.

She could barely hear over the sound of her heartbeat echoing in her ears, but she could see his eyes as he lifted his chin and saw her from across the room.

It took her breath away.

The depth of emotions she saw in his dark eyes made her knees tremble. She hoped that she saw in their depths what she had been feeling… waiting for.

“Vera?”

She turned her head toward the soft voice at her left and smiled at Sofia, Santo’s sister. The beautiful bouquet of flowers held in her hands was stunning.

Sofia’s smile and warm eyes helped ease some of her nerves.

“Santo picked the flowers himself.” Sofia put the bouquet in Vera’s hand and the two women, soon to be sisters in more than just their hearts, shared a smile.

Vera hadn’t been sure that Santo would find the time or remember that the bouquet was his responsibility. If not, she would have been more than happy to marry him without the flowers. It was the groom and not the flowers that she was marrying.

The next few moments were a blur, even the ceremony itself was barely a wash of colors and a mix of sounds that only seemed to abate when they said their vows. By some miracle, she was able to repeat them in a voice that was audible enough for the priest standing beside them, and intelligible enough that no one in attendance laughed.

It wouldn’t have mattered if they did, because through it all, there was Santo. His dark eyes fixed on her face; his hand warm in hers. Holding her tightly throughout the ceremony. Holding onto her still after the priest said that he could kiss her.

Together, a hand from each of them, they lifted the veil and lowered it behind her, baring her face to her husband.

Her husband!

Santo leaned in, and only once he had his lips on hers, did he let go of her hand and take her tightly into his embrace.

Vera lost herself in his kiss, nearly unaware of the room filled with people, surrounding them. She would have gladly drowned in that kiss and all of the passion it awakened inside of her. There was a hope now that they were married that all of her worries and all of her fears would fade into the past, but as he released her, gently letting her sway back and away from him, she looked up into his eyes and remembered that there was still the reception ahead of them.

She was both eager for it to be over and hesitant about the evening to come.

Loving Santo was easy, worrying that she might not be able to please him in bed, made her stomach turn. The love she felt inside of her was boundless, but she had no idea how to show that to him. She would try though. She wanted to be everything to him. Friend. Wife. Lover.

Tonight, she would show him how much she loved him by trusting him with her innocence and the tender recesses of her heart and soul.