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It Pays to Ask

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I

Their laughter sounded genuine, though, for the life of her, she couldn't remember what had been so funny.

Their meeting had been by chance. Nicoletta stopped by a small alimentrai in the hopes of picking up tomatoes. She hadn't expected to see Claudio walk by. How? Wasn't this shop far out his way, especially on a day off? It would have been so easy to let him walk on by. But there was something about the graceful, easy way he walked down the sidewalk …

Before she knew it, her hand was waving wildly and she could only say, “Claudio, Claudio, bon giorno!” He turned to her and smiled. At that moment, she knew the commotion was worth it.

He agreed to walk her home. “Certainly innocent behavior,” she reminded herself silently. They talked warmly along the gamut of friendly conversation: work, family, politics, and the sudden turn toward winter weather. It was somewhere during this banter that the joke arrived and peals of laughter followed soon behind.

As the laughter died down, her hand slowly drifted out toward his. She hadn't intended to use that moment to make her move. The moment had felt right, natural.

It was also natural that his hand would slip away just as her hand neared it. She tried to tell herself that it had been unintentional. They had never been afraid to touch before. Still, the careless way he continued down the sidewalk spoke of something else. Hadn't they moved on to a new phase? Nicoletta paused and stared as he walked forward.

It only took a few moments for Claudio to realize she had stopped. He turned back, wide-eyed, and asked, “Is anything wrong?”

“No,” she said, suddenly hoarse. “It's nothing at all.” Nicoletta sighed and walked back up to meet him. She turned to him and, wearing her brightest smile, asked, “Where did we leave off?”

II

“You can't rush him.”

“How was I rushing anyone? I didn't tell him how I felt. And this only about holding hands. It's nothing to become too distressed over.”

“Is it? That's not what I'm hearing here.” Luciano removed his glasses and rubbed his eyes. “It will almost always bee something with Claudio. Think about how long it took him to take off that ring. He will only take small steps toward a new relationship.”

“But hasn't he made many big strides since we met?”

Luciano just shook his head. “She won't listen to me. You should to try to talk some sense into her.”

Furio merely laughed. He wiped his hands on a nearby towel and joined Luciano and Nicoletta at the table. “In some ways, she's right.”

“See …!”

“And Luciano is right was well,” he said over her growing sigh. “Claudio moves slowly, cautiously. He can be very insecure in certain situations. It may take him a while to find his balance.”

“And that's all I want for him!”

“But you're going to have to wait,” said Luciano.

“I can't just sit around and wait,” said Nicoletta.

“No one's saying you have to just 'sit around,'” said Luciano.

“Then what should I do?”

“We can't tell you that.”

“Humph … has anyone ever told you two that you're no help?”

Luciano shrugged and turned his attentions back to his newspaper. She turned toward Furio only to discover that he had returned to the stove. Nicoletta stared down into her coffee. What would she have to do?

III

Two nights passed and the situation still dominated her thoughts. Was she over-thinking it? It was the only option that Nicoletta's mind kept swirling back to. What was holding hands to him? Child's play, most likely. And what was it really to her? A token.

Still, each night she found herself watching him as he worked. His manner was easy and kind with every patron that passed through the doors. It was the same as he was with her. "Or is it?" she asked herself. Each repetition of the phrase was begging her to replay every interaction she had ever hand with Claudio, looking—if only in vain—for something to separate her from every other woman.

And, worse, she was beginning to feel that she was becoming obvious. During one such moment of reflection, she felt a hand press down on her shoulder. "You'll only frustrate yourself by playing over the details," said Teo. "You can't continue to be this way. You have to act."

Act? "I suppose I should," was all Nicoletta could say.

She stayed late that night, not so much out of duplicity but necessity. There was still much for her to do at the restaurant. That Claudio left at a similar late hour only sweetened the deal. She was as surprised as anyone that he was leaving at the same time as herself. "Do you need me to walk you home?" he asked as the two of them walked out the door.

"I would love it if you did but ..."

"But?"

"I have something I need to ask you."

His brow scrunched up for a moment. It quickly unfurrowed and he smiled, asking, "What do you need to ask?''

"Now or never," she told herself. Nicoletta closed her eyes and asked, "What are we to each other?"

"Nicoletta ...," he said, voice soft.

"I need to know. But you don't have to tell me now!"

"Then when?"

"Thursday. And at your home."

"My home?"

"You need to be comfortable. I don't think you've be comfortable anywhere else."

Claudio paused, his face almost mask-like. "Fine," he said. "We'll finish this Thursday. Would you still like me to walk you home?"

"Yes." The words came out as a whisper.

IV

Nicoletta shuffled her feet under the table, crossing and uncrossing them at an awkward, uneasy pace. Was she obvious? She surely hoped not.

It wasn't often that she spoke with Gabriella. It's not as if Nicoletta still held the same feelings towards her. A few “hellos” here and “good nights” there in informal situations had seemingly evaporated all the one-sided hard feelings. Still, she was a bit intimidated by her. It was easy to see why Claudio, or any man, would be attracted to her. Gabriella exuded confidence and grace. Those were attributes she one day hoped to posses. She just knew that they wouldn't come to her soon.

Gabriella had agreed to visit with her. Perhaps Nicoletta's willingness to pay for the day's coffee, or, as it turned out, wine made the deal seem a bit sweeter that it would have otherwise. Even as the both sipped at their respective drinks, Nicoletta worried about finding the perfect time to speak.

"I... um... well, Gabriella?"

"Yes?" she asked, blinking just once in a kind of surprise.

"Well, how did you know that Claudio was finally committed."

"Committed?" she asked, barely able to keep back a laugh. "The wedding was a good clue."

"That's not really helpful."

"The question is incredibly vague. What do you mean by it?"

Nicoletta shut her eyes briefly. Could she tell Gabriella? She had nearly told everyone at the restaurant, much less anyone on the various streets as she told wailed. She sighed before saying, "It can't hurt to tell you."

And so she did. Quietly, and with a sense of calm she hadn't displayed in quite a while, Nicoletta spilled every little detail: the meeting, the failed attempts at romance and, finally the night ahead of her. Gabriella nodded as the details poured forth, occasionally taking a sip of wine as she patiently stared at the woman before her. Once she was done, Nicoletta asked, "So what do you think?"

Gabriella paused a moment before nodding, saying "It's actually very sweet. You know, I don't think Claudio expects others to fall for him so."

"What do you mean?"

"Well, he certainly knows that other women find him attractive and that they'll pursue him. But he doesn't expect them to go deep with it. He's told me about instances in the past where women would just expect one thing from him and... it is something he likes to stay away from."

"Like?"

“It's not my story to tell. And do not try to force it out of him!” She paused a moment before adding, “But I do believe you're close. He would not have agreed to your little meeting if you were not.”

“Do you really think so?” asked Nicoletta.

“I do. Don't stress,” said Gabriella, “he will do all the stressing for the two of you.”

V

It was only when she approached his door that she began to truly falter. “I should just go back home,” Nicoletta told herself.

It was, however, too late for that. Claudio opened the door mere moments after she arrived. "Please come in." She entered with no outward hesitation.

Nicoletta hadn't known what to expect when entering his home. Yet, as she looked around the living room, it felt as if this was exactly what she knew she would see. Clean, bright colors covered the walls. The furniture was impeccable and reminded her of classic, ever-tasteful design. And the books! The few bookcases she saw were packed with books from a wide variety of subjects.

Her wonder was broken by the sound of his voice: “Nicoletta, you wanted me to tell you where we stood.”

“Yes but I need to say something first.” The voice coming from her only barely sounded like her own. The words still poured forth: “I feel as if I've been over-thinking things. But at the same time, I haven't. We're more than just friends. I know that; at least, I think I do. But I want to hear it. And I'm going to say it first: I want you.”

Her hand jutted outed and reached for his shirt. But she stopped mid-way, her mind racing back to one of their earlier nights together. Could she trust herself to reach for him and not leave him in another vulnerable state? She balled the hand into a loose fist and returned it to her side. “What do you want?” she asked.

Claudio sighed. He reached out and grabbed her hand. “I only want you.”

“Then I…?”

He leaned in and kissed her. Their lips just barely brushed. Yet the moment they started the separate, Nicoletta bridged the gap. Their mouths crashed together and, for a moment, she wondered if she pushed to forcefully. Their lips softened and she thought she heard a slight moan escape. She just couldn't be sure from whom it came.

“I'm not normally like this,” he said.

“That's fine. In fact, it's probably better than fine,” she said, lips parting into a smile.

Claudio nodded. “Perhaps we should retire to the back?”

“I...I would love that,” she said.

Holding hands, they made their way to the back room.

VI

That was how it formally began

Nicoletta stood just outside her favorite alimentrai, longing for just a sniff of the fresh produce or, at least, a respite from the cold. A quick glance out of the corner of her eyes brought the passing Claudio into view. They hadn't spoken in two days. She could nearly feel the heat rising into her cheeks. She smiled and, for a moment, considered whether or not she would call him over. “Are you always so stupid?” she said to herself.

Nicoletta turned and waved, saying, “Claudio, Claudio, bon giorno!”

He turned to her and smiled. She rammed her hands in her coat pockets and crossed the street to get where he stood. “It's been awhile,” he said, only half joking.

“So it has.” She didn't care to keep the smile from her lips. “Would you care to walk me home?”

“It would be an honor.”

And so they walked. Again, conversation turned toward the friendly and jovial. It was long before laughter tumbled out from the two of them. Perhaps she was so caught in the moment that she didn't quite realize when his hand reached out and grabbed hers. But the pressure and heat between their hands broke her daze and sent her gaze straight to him. "It wasn't so hard now, was it?" he asked.

"No," she said, "it's just a little thing."

"It's not so little at all."

Claudio dropped her hand. He reached out, draped his arm across her should and gently pulled her closer. For a moment, she couldn't breathe. She slipped her own arm around his hip and continued their stroll forward. If anyone paid any mind to them, she was sure they would see the most deliriously happy young woman of all time.

"Now tell me, Claudio: did I only need to ask to push you forward?"

"Well now," he said, his voice sounding the vaguest bit flustered, "I wouldn't put it that way. But I won't say I didn't need the push."

She would only smile. "I needed the push too." Her hand squeezed his hip. They weren't too far from her apartment. Perhaps she would ask him to stay for dinner? Or perhaps to stay the night? The possibilities were endless. Though either situation was one she craved, Nicoletta tried to push them from her mind. She wanted to only enjoy the moment. She would face those questions when the time was right.