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Authors: Gail Cleare

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BOOK: Destined
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“Order for Bellino! Right here,
Bellino!” A man’s voice rang out, above the din. It was Rocco, I recognized him
from his pictures.

Rocco located Mr. Bellino and passed
him a large pizza box.

“What?” he asked, and leaned forward
to listen to the man. I couldn’t hear what he said. Rocco burst into laughter,
grabbing the man by the shoulder in a warm, friendly way. He seemed to get
along well with all his waiting customers, who called him by his name and joked
with him.

“OK, next” he said, when it was
finally my turn. “What can I get for you tonight?”

He stood waiting with his order pad
and pen in his hands. He smiled, looking at me curiously. He was a big, strong,
hearty man with thick dark hair that stuck out here and there as though he’d
been pulling it in frustration. It was touched with gray at the temples. He was
dressed in kitchen whites that had obviously been on duty for quite a few
hours. He was full of vitality. When he smiled he looked like his mother, I
noticed.

He took my order and accepted my
offered twenty-dollar bill, then handed me my change and a receipt. I gave him
my last name and he passed my order along down the line. I stepped aside to
wait for my pizza. He was still regarding me curiously.

“Are you my new neighbor across the
street, I think?” he ventured, “The one my mother keeps telling me so much
about?”

I nodded and he grinned, reaching out
to grab my hand. He pumped it up and down, smiling broadly. A warm cozy feeling
came over me, like basking in sunlight. His energy was intense.

“Hey, how are you, Emily, right?”
 
He kept on shaking my hand.

“Hi, yes, how are you? Rocco. It’s
great to meet you,” I said, my head bobbling.

“You too!”

“So,” I said, finally regaining my
hand.

“So. Your first time, right?” he
asked.

“Yes, yes. Hmm. What?”

“First time I saw you in here.”

“Ohhh, yes! My first time. You
certainly are busy, aren’t you? That’s wonderful.”

“Yeah, it’s busy tonight. Like every
night!”

He looked around proudly. Two cooks, a
dishwasher and a couple of waitresses were hustling around with precision.
Every square inch of space was being utilized. We were packed in like sardines.
The brick oven was interesting and I had high hopes for the pizza itself, which
looked good. A waitress with a loaded tray of food headed out from behind the
counter toward the table area, and I had a chance at a closer visual
inspection. Thin crust, which I love. I wondered if his tomato sauce was as
good as what they made every day next door. Rocco stepped aside to let the
waitress go through the opening in the counter, then motioned for one of the
cooks to step in and continuing taking orders. There were only two parties
behind me at that point. The activity had started to ebb.

Rocco stood next to me leaning on the
counter and we chatted, while he kept one eye on the action in the kitchen.

“Do you make your own sauce?”

“Sure we do, of course. Every day,
just like my Pop.”

“I love your parents, they’re
wonderful. And your mother is great.”

“Yeah? Well she sure does like you,”
he said, glancing at me, then surveying the crowd again. “It’s real nice of you
to take time with her. She loves to talk!”

“So do I. It’s been a great way to
find out about the neighborhood.”

He raised one eyebrow at me.

“Yeah? She tells you what’s going on,
eh?”

“Sure,” I nodded. “She has really made
me feel welcome here.”

“Mom likes to know everything about
everybody, if she can find out.”

“Yes, she seems very interested in
people.”

“She has a spy network on the street,
you know. All the people who come in and tell her the news, blah-blah-blah,” he
said, opening and closing his hand like a mouth talking.

“She’s easy to talk to,” I said
defensively. “She’s very supportive!”

Rocco shot me another of his
raised-eyebrow, skeptical looks.

“Easy for her to pry personal
information out of people, you mean,” he commented dryly. “You sit down for a
nice bowl of pasta and the next thing you know, she is giving advice about your
sex life!”

Since that was roughly what had happened
with me, I didn’t have much of a comeback. So I asked him a few more questions
about the restaurant. He had bought the building ten years ago and spent
several years fixing it up, while he kept on working at the grocery next door.

“It was a real trash pile,” he said. “We
had to rip out all the walls downstairs here, the floors, the ceiling,
everything. They were full of rat shit. Pretty disgusting.”

I must have appeared dismayed, because
he laughed and patted my shoulder reassuringly.

“Don’t worry, honey, we got it all
out!” He burst out in his big hearty laugh.

“Oh, good.” I rolled my eyes and
grinned.

I wondered if the “we” he referred to
included his ex-wife. According to Josie, the young couple had bought the
pizzeria building as newlyweds, planning to raise a family there. She still
regretted the loss of their unborn children, never to be bounced on her knee.

My pizza came out of the oven and was
boxed, appearing on the counter in front us when Rocco motioned to one of the
cooks. The buzz of business was building up again, as a group of diners left
the restaurant and a party of six entered and found seats.


I’ll
let you get back to work now,” I said, taking the warm pizza box into my hands.
“I’m so glad to
finally
meet you,
Rocco.”

He patted me on the shoulder again and
his warm aura enveloped me like a hug.

“You too, Emily! You come back again
some time! Enjoy the pie!”

“Thank you! I will!”

I wormed my way through the maze of
people standing in the front of the restaurant and made it out the door. The
smell of the pizza was enticing, so I opened the box and took a slice as soon
as I got into my car. It was superb. Just right. Nothing less than what I had
expected, considering. Josie was right, I thought. Cooking
was
in the blood, with her clan.

A few days later on a rainy Sunday
afternoon I decided to eat popcorn for lunch and headed to the Mall movie
theaters in the next town. As I stood in front of the sign trying to decide
which matinee to enter, I heard that hearty laugh again. Looking up, I saw
Rocco emerging from the morning show that was just letting out. He had his arm
around a petite Asian woman. She wore jeans and a black raincoat, with her long
shining dark hair pulled back into a ponytail. He leaned over attentively as
she spoke, then they both laughed. They were walking directly toward me. As
they approached, he looked up and recognized me. He pulled back the arm that
had been encircling the woman.

“Well, well,” he said in a friendly
voice, though his eyes showed an odd wariness. “If it isn’t our new friend! How
are you, Emily?” He smiled and nodded at me.

“Fine! Great! How are you Rocco? Did
you see the Sci Fi, or the Sandra Bullock?”

I looked curiously at the woman, who
seemed uncomfortable, so I gave her my most friendly smile. She looked
startled, and then she smiled back. Rocco watched this little exchange with
some apparent anxiety, stuffing his hands into the pockets of his brown leather
jacket. He hovered over her protectively.

“We saw the Sci Fi, and it was good,”
she spoke up. Her voice was light and girlish. I kept grinning at her, and she
finally gave me back a full-on, gorgeous smile. She was absolutely adorable.
Flawless skin, beautiful greenish eyes, a slim athletic build. Probably over
thirty, though she could have easily passed for sixteen in the right clothes.
Very sweet expression, very graceful. I was totally enchanted by her.

Rocco was obviously in full
appreciation of her assets as well. He appeared delighted when she spoke, as
though she had said something amazing. It was either cute, or excessive, I
couldn’t decide which. He was definitely obsessed, but in a good way, I hoped.
Something was clearly going on between them.

“Emily, this is my friend Mei, “ Rocco
said. He pronounced it, “My.”

We greeted each other, shaking hands.
Hers was tiny and frail as a bird’s wing.

“Emily! I heard about you! My family
has a restaurant on Market Street. It’s called Buddha,” she announced. “It is
Asian Fusion cuisine. My father is the chef. He’s brilliant.”

Rocco looked slightly dismayed. It
came across that he did not want me to know who she was. I assumed that he
didn’t want his mother to find out what he was up to. This was very
interesting. Otherwise, I never would have agreed to butt in on their date when
Mei politely invited me to come with them to get some lunch in the mall coffee
shop.

Also I was starved, as usual. While we
waited for our burgers, we talked. Or rather, Rocco leaned back with his arm
stretched out along the top of the seat and watched the two of us talk. Mei and
I chattered away like old friends. She told me all about her family, about
their cooperative effort to start a successful new restaurant. Everyone had a
financial investment in it, including her parents, her sister and her two
brothers. It had taken over a year to do the construction work on the space
they were leasing. They had hired a special crew from New York City to do the
work, a Chinese company. It included someone expert at
feng shui
, the art of arranging objects within
a space so that energy flows through it in a beneficial way.

“My family is very traditional, though
we’ve been living here for a long time now,” Mei said. “My father still does
not speak English. But he understands more than he lets on.”

She and her siblings were raised in
the U.S., while her parents worked at a relative’s Chinese restaurant. The kids
all went to high school and graduated with honors, then all four children went
to college and trained for high-paying jobs. One was now a lawyer, one was an
accountant, a third was in medical school and Mei herself worked full-time as a
project manager in the Information Technology department at a large corporation
nearby. All four of them also worked at the restaurant, whenever they could.
Sometimes the brother in medical school would even fly in for the weekend, if
they were in a pinch.

“Your family must be very close,” I
remarked approvingly.

“Yes, very close. Sometimes, too
close,” she said, looking pointedly at Rocco.

“Yep, yep,” he said, “‘Close’ is one
word for it.”

“My family is very traditional,” she
repeated. “They have very strict rules for how everyone must live.” An angry
expression fluttered across her face, and was gone.

Rocco leaned forward to join in. He
lowered his voice confidentially.

“They don’t approve of me.”

“No!”

“Yes.”

“Of you? What’s not to love?” I
demanded indignantly, and we all laughed.

“It’s not
you
, not you personally, though,” Mei
protested.

“Yeah, they love me as the pizza-head
from down the street, right?”

“Right, it’s just that they don’t want
me going out with someone who is not Chinese,” she explained to me. “They have
always been very definite about that.” She glanced at him. “My brothers and
sister have all followed the rules, they have always dated only the ‘approved’
kind of person. But I guess I am the rebel!”

She sat up, straightened her shoulders
and grinned proudly.

“Yeah, she’s a rebel all right,” Rocco
teased, “Four years we’ve been going out, and she still doesn’t tell her
parents.”

“No! Four years! They still don’t
know?”

He nodded, shrugging.

“My father would be very angry if he
knew we were serious about each other,” she explained. “He would not want me to
be a part of the restaurant anymore. He would shun me. My entire life savings
is invested. They cannot afford to buy me out. It’s complicated.”

“So your relationship is a secret,” I
concluded.

“My parents don’t know, either.” Rocco
looked at me meaningfully.

“Ohhh. OK. I get it.”

“No, it’s not what you think. I’m not
afraid to tell them about her. I do what I want. I own my own place. It’s
nobody’s business what I do.”

“Yes, of course.”

“But, you can’t tell my mother.”

“OK, OK, I won’t. Don’t worry about
it.”

“It would be all over the neighborhood
by noon.”

“Yes, yes.”

“I would say, by no later than ten
o’clock,” Mei quipped, grinning.

We all laughed.

“Seriously,” Mei said, “We’d really
appreciate it if you don’t tell anyone you saw us today. That’s why we always
come to the Sunday morning movie. There’s never anybody here. I don’t want my
family to find out right now. It is not a good time for us to be mad at each
other.”

BOOK: Destined
8.7Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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