The streets of New York were accompanied by a chaotic soundtrack of car horns blaring, people shouting, and advertisements beckoning. Every surface was covered in lights, illustrating how it truly was the city that never slept.
Ben Solo ducked his chin further under the crimson fabric of his scarf, his breath coming out in wispy clouds of steam due to the winter temperatures.
November in the northeast was brisk. The cold didn’t affect Ben in the slightest. An extra layer, a pair of gloves, and a scarf were all he required to continue with his typical routine. He found the lower temperature kept others inside, meaning he didn’t have to wait over twenty minutes for a cup of coffee or meander endlessly through Central Park to find an available bench.
In a sea of millions, Ben preferred solitude. Living in the largest city in the States didn’t seem an appropriate choice but his publisher had chosen the location and since they paid for his accommodations, Ben couldn’t argue. It wasn’t as though he had anywhere better to go.
He hadn’t had an actual home since he was fifteen and his parents had pawned him off on his uncle. Eight years later, he made the decision to walk out on them, giving up his inheritance and fashioning himself a new name.
The New York Times Bestselling author was an enigma who, while churning out impressive works of fiction, was a recluse and had never conducted a live interview or done a book signing. Anyone passing him by on the street had no knowledge of his identity and Ben preferred to keep it that way.
He didn’t long for stardom. The dreams of his youth had been crushed by his family’s weighty expectations long ago. Thousands of people migrated to the city each year, searching for their golden opportunity to gain fame and fortune. Ben wasn’t so naive. The fortune he’d made came from years toiling over manuscripts and the editing prowess of Armitage Hux.
The First Order Media executive transformed Ben’s first novel, AVCO , into a USA Today ranked best seller. For his debut project, making the top 150 list was a major accomplishment.
Hux’s efforts didn’t stop there. With the announcement of Ben’s second novel, Space Bear , his editor played up the mystery factor, setting up radio interviews and podcasts. The press signed dozens of non-disclosure forms, securing his anonymity in return for a coveted meeting.
Now, less than two months from the launch of his third novel, Black Diamond , Ben was gearing up to go through the process once more.
He’d spent the day at the publishing house, recording his own voice for the audiobook. Based on the social media hype around his interviews, Hux demanded that Ben read his work for all future recordings. Their female demographic increased exponentially.
He rounded the corner of Hickstreet, heading up the steps into his brownstone. The lease was in the First Order’s name but it had been his house for the past seven years.
Once inside, Ben unwrapped his scarf and shrugged off his coat. He hung both by the entrance before peeling off his gloves and toeing off his shoes. The hardwood floors felt cool beneath his feet, the chill seeping through his wool socks. He made a mental note to check the thermostat before wandering into his kitchen to make a pot of coffee.
It was going to be a long night.
Hux ran an aggressive promotional schedule. Since Ben refused to do photo shoots, live interviews, or anything that would involve getting his face out in the public eye, his editor creatively assigned him to other tasks.
There were the typical things like audiobooks, sound clips for the book’s trailer, and radio interviews. Then there were the more unique media outlets, such as character soundboards, Spotify playlists with introductions by him, and Hux’s latest idea: a reader contest. The winner would be rewarded with a recorded personalized message from Kylo Ren, along with an autographed copy of the novel.
Ben thought the tactics were tasteless marketing schemes but the numbers spoke for themselves. The pre-orders already surpassed his second novel’s first week sales.
As he poured himself a generous mug of dark roast, he turned his attention to the fourth novel. It was the first of a new trilogy, focusing on events succeeding his other novels but ultimately operating in the same universe. He’d been struggling with character development, especially given Hux’s critique that he wasn’t writing for the female demographic.
How could he?
Ben Solo didn’t know anything about women.
All of his prior works followed a group of knights who were perceived as villains even though they sacrificed everything to bring order to their land. There were female characters scattered throughout but Ben had never written a female lead.
He ran a hand through his thick raven hair, debating on whether he should call Phasma. Gwendolyn Phasma was a corporate lawyer, Krav Maga enthusiast, and his next-door neighbor.
They’d met when Ben was moving in. He’d accidentally locked himself out and she’d mistaken him for a burglar. One trip to the ER later and Phasma had become the closest thing Ben had to a friend. They had a standing Sunday brunch which was about as much social interaction as Ben cared to have with anyone.
As he climbed the stairs to the second story where his office was, Ben decided he’d discuss female leads with his neighbor on Sunday. It would give him a topic to pose to her for a change.
Typically, it was Phasma who drove their conversations. She was rather opinionated and enjoyed sharing her views with anyone who cared to listen. Not many did. Ben figured it was because the men at her firm felt threatened by her success. He didn’t mind. He found it soothing to listen to her while they enjoyed overpriced Bloody Mary’s and Eggs Benedict.
When he entered his office, Ben noticed a red flashing light. The only reason for having a landline was because of his fax machine and the only reason he had that was because Hux insisted on it. Apparently, the editor’s supervisor didn’t believe in single points of failure and on the off chance a document upload didn’t work, he wanted another method of receiving Ben’s pages. Still, the only person who used the line was Hux so Ben was surprised to notice a missed call notification.
Had his editor dialed the landline by mistake?
With a sigh, he pressed ‘Play’.
“Hello, Ben, it’s your mother.”
His coffee mug shattered on the floor, hot liquid coffee splashing everywhere.
How had Leia Organa gotten his private number? It wasn’t listed anywhere. That was part of his agreement with Hux. No outside interaction. No family.
“I know it’s been a while but with the Thanksgiving holiday coming up next week, I wanted to reach out to let you know that I’ll be in town,” the message went on. “I thought I could make a reservation for us at the Ritz and we could have dinner together. Would seven o’clock be alright? And should I make it for two or would you prefer to bring someone? I wasn’t sure of your relationship status. I can’t stalk your Facebook the way Shera does with Poe. You know he got married? He and his husband have a beautiful little boy, Bebe. You should see the pictures.”
Ben groaned, hiding his face in his palm. Leave it to his mother to throw him into a guilt trip in under five minutes. That was the Skywalker blood in her veins. She was a master of manipulation. It made her a prime candidate for the Senate. Politics wasn’t a battleground for the pure of heart.
“Anyways, let me know. My cell number hasn’t changed. It’s still 505-250-1977. Talk to you soon.” There was a click and then the phone software asked if he’d like to listen again or delete the message.
Ben picked up the receiver and slammed it back down.
He needed to get out of New York.
“Now, when you arrive, ask for Mitaka,” Hux instructed as the car pulled up at JFK. “He’ll pick you up at the airport. The main house is located just outside of town. It’s a short walk and there shouldn’t be much traffic in the off-season.”
“Just be back in time for the launch,” the redhead replied, solely focused on matters of business. “And send me the first three chapters of the new novel.”
“Sure,” Ben muttered.
They exchanged brief goodbyes, then he was exiting the vehicle to enter the fray of other passengers flying out.
The flight from New York to Verona was over ten hours and included a layover in Dublin. Ben was grateful for his first-class accommodations, as well as his editor's quick thinking which got him out of the city and by extension away from his mother.
He wasn’t sure how Leia managed to obtain his information but he guessed she’d pulled some strings with her government contacts. It had been seven years since he’d spoken to the woman. What could be so important now that she needed to go to extreme measures to reach him?
Ben decided he didn’t care and returned his attention to his laptop. The cursor sat at the top of a new page, blinking mockingly at him.
The start was always a challenge. An opening line could inspire a reader or kill their interest stone dead. It was the hook to let them in. Once they were caught, the rest of the story was what made them stay. He built them a world so fantastic that they preferred it over reality.
Just as he did.
“Would you like another whiskey, sir?” the flight attendant offered, stopping by his seat.
Ben gave her a curt nod, not even glancing at her. His focus was on the blank document in front of him.
He sipped his drink, batting around idea after idea until the glass was empty. Even after the stewardess returned to remove his glass, the page remained a white void.
Closing the laptop, he turned to gaze out the window. Maybe the answers he sought were hidden somewhere in the clouds. His eyes grew heavy, mind tired from the events of the day.
Eventually, the thrum of the engines lulled him to sleep.
After he passed through customs, Ben made his way through the throng of other arrivals to meet Mitaka.
“Good morning, Mr. Solo,” the shorter man greeted him.
Ben narrowed his eyes. “Mr. Solo was my father. Call me Ben.”
“Yes, sir,” Mitaka nodded, fumbling over an apology as he led Ben out to the car.
The ride into Verona was a quiet affair. Mitaka seemed easily spooked and gave Ben a wide berth. The author revered the silence, watching the scenery as the twittering man’s Fiat zipped through the countryside.
Situated between Milan and Venice, the city was known for the Shakespearean play. Ben had read it, of course, but only once. He never understood people’s fascination with the tale. The characters were naive, spoiled, and easily manipulated. It wasn’t a story of love. It was a story of foolishness.
When Hux provided him the location of his villa, he’d been surprised. The man didn’t seem to be a romantic. He didn’t seem to be anything other than a workaholic. Then Mitaka pulled up and Ben understood.
Villa di Hux was a historic building with traditional columns accenting its simple architecture. The roof tiles were a burnt sienna color, which stood out against the yellow of walls as if the structure was a flower amongst the expansive gardens it was surrounded by. Ben instantly appreciated the gardens, not for their well-maintained landscaping but because of the privacy they offered.
The villa was more than a short walk from the city center, as Hux had suggested. It was six kilometers, or to him, just under four miles. He would have been annoyed if he was a typical American tourist but Ben Solo appreciated the distance. It would keep curious locals away and save him from any unwanted social interactions.
“I’ll get your bags, sir,” Mitaka informed him upon opening the car door. “Just make yourself at home. The fridge and pantry have already been stocked but should you need anything, the market opens around ten in Piazza Della Erbe.”
“Thank you.” Ben gave him a curt nod and proceeded up the steps inside the house.
The villa was a mixture of both modern luxury and old-world elegance. There was a massive indoor pool which he found a bit ostentatious but when he strolled into his assigned guest room, Ben was pleased to find it was decorated in the traditional sense.
A fine Italian leather couch was situated under the south window. There was a desk with candles for light and a bed. Nothing flashy. Nothing too over the top. It was perfect.
Ben placed his laptop down and got to work.
Perhaps it was the fresh country air, or maybe it was because he wasn’t constantly tuning out the oppressive noise of the city, but Ben found his first three chapters pouring out of him.
In less than a week, he’d established a new routine. Each morning he woke, walked barefoot and shirtless down to the kitchen, switched on Hux’s pretentious Nespresso machine, had some cereal while he waited for the brew, then took his espresso out to the back patio, along with a notebook.
He found it easier to hand write his ideas. There was something peaceful about seeing his pen drag across the paper, leaving behind a stain of ink in the shape of letters.
Ben would spend hours outside, sipping his finely crafted beverage, watching the wind play with the flowers and writing. Some days he took a break to walk around the grounds, other days he was content to remain in his seat.
Each evening, after dinner, he typed up his words, committing them to his laptop. By the end of his first week, he had the three chapters he promised Hux. He emailed his editor the document, satisfied with his progress.
He was the only one.
The following day, Hux called him, demanding he complete a rewrite.
“Excuse me?” Ben growled.
“Where is the female lead?” Hux asked. He sighed, then added. “We talked about this, Ben.”
“Just because I have female readers doesn’t mean I have to have a romantic element to my novels. There is more to fiction than love triangles and adolescent angst,” he criticized other writer’s choices.
“Ben,” Hux said with a groan. Ben could see him in his office, pinching the bridge of his nose. “Fix the chapters.”
“There is nothing to fix.”
He heard something slam. “Fix it or your vacation is going to be cut short,” Hux demanded. The call ended.
“Asshole,” Ben grumbled.
Furious, he threw his phone at the wall, cringing when it made an impact.
He hurried over to check the damage. It was extensive. The screen was cracked so badly he couldn’t make out what was displayed and the bottom corner was dented. He’d need to go into town and find a repair shop.
Grumbling to himself, Ben packed his satchel with his notebook, pens, laptop, a bottle of water, and an apple. Then he began the long walk to Verona’s city center.
It took him two hours to reach civilization. While Ben walked, he debated calling Hux back and telling him off. That plan was short-lived, considering his books were how he made a living. And the more pressing fact that he’d broken his phone in a fit of rage. He resigned himself to Hux’s request.
For a weekday, the city was sparsely populated. He earned several interested stares from locals who clearly suspected he was American. There weren’t many Italians who stood over six feet tall.
He found a tech store offering phone repair along Via S. Paola. The owner, a stuttering man named DJ, told him to come back after riposo, the Italian afternoon break. When Ben asked him what time that was, the man merely shrugged and took his cell into the back.
With an exasperated sigh, the author exited the small shop and crossed the Ponte delle Navi to try and locate a cafe where he could wait out the man.
The shops, hotels, and restaurants all boasted offers of undeniable romance and endless love. Ben’s brow furrowed. Readjusting his sachem strap, he continued past them, attempting to ignore how the universe mocked him.
Until he saw the sign.
Casa di Giulietta.
Of course, he thought irritably. Of course, he’d inadvertently walk by the home of the fabled lovers.
Ben charged forward with every intention of continuing until he no longer saw hearts, red roses, or any other symbol of romance. But then he smelled freshly made bread wafting out of the courtyard.
He peered past the iron gates, trying to see the source of the delicious aroma. He couldn’t make out anyone, just the sound of muffled voices echoing off the entrance. Curious, Ben entered.
As he emerged from the shadowed entry, Ben found a collection of old women eating in the courtyard. They had a simple meal of jams, fruit, and bread laid out before them. They were huddled together, fearing with their hands and cackling like a bunch of hens.
There were no other visitors to the tourist trap and Ben immediately regretted coming inside. He tried to back out when one of the women spotted him.
“Ragazzo!” She waved him over.
“Vieni qui. Adesso,” she ordered.
His Italian wasn’t very good but he understood what she meant from her wild gesturing. Ben walked over to the table.
“Uh...buongiorno,” he greeted the women.
“Buongiorno,” they chorused back, all smiling up at him.
“Siediti, siediti, ” the one who had called him over directed, moving aside to give him a chair.
“Oh, no,” he shook his head.
“Siediti.” Her eyes narrowed and even though he towered over her petite frame, he understood she was not a woman to trifle with. He did as he was told.
“Come ti chiami?” another woman asked, as they all began passing him food and drink.
“Um...Ben?” he hesitantly offered.
“Benjamin,” they all chorused happily.
“What brings you to Verona, Benjamin?” the first woman asked.
“I’m a writer,” he replied, blinking in surprise at how perfect her English was, despite her thick accent. It matched her thick glasses.
“E uno scrittore,” she translated for her friends. They all cheered.
“My name is Maz,” she introduced herself. “This is Ahsoka, Sabine, Brenda, and Mashra.”
“Nice to meet you,” he said, giving them a brief wave.
“Have you come for luck?” Maz inquired, as he began to eat with them.
“From Giulietta,” she clarified. “The legend says if you touch the statue, you will always be lucky in love.”
“No,” Ben blushed as he quickly corrected the woman. “No, my novels don’t feature any romance.”
“Why not?” Maz questioned. “Is there no greater story than that of love?”
“I’d like to think there is” he replied curtly.
Maz made a disapproving humming sound. “You’ve never been in love,” she assessed.
“Does that matter?”
“How could it not?” she asked. “You’ve come to the right place, Benjamin. Here is where you will find the answers you seek.”
With that, she turned back to her meal. Ben mulled over her words as he chewed. He wondered how a stranger could force him to acknowledge his loneliness, a sensation he had carried with him for so long that it had become almost indistinguishable.
DJ hadn’t managed to fix his phone by the end of riposo.
“Come back tomorrow,” the technician suggested. “It will be done tomorrow.”
Ben tried to argue with him but the man merely waved at him and disappeared into the back room.
Grumbling, Ben began the long trek back to Villa di Hux.
DJ’s shop wasn’t open when Ben arrived at eight o’clock. Shoving his hands in his pockets, he meandered over to Casa de Guillietta.
The women were working in the courtyard, weeding, sweeping, and chatting.
“Buongiorno,” Ben greeted them with a smile and a wave.
They all turned to give him wide grins. “Buongiorno, Benjamin,” they replied in unison.
“Back so soon?” Maz asked with a knowing grin.
“Repairs take longer here than in the States,” he replied with a shrug.
While he was annoyed that his phone still wasn’t fixed, Ben wasn’t completely disappointed at having an excuse to return to the courtyard. The women were soft and quiet. They amused themselves by discussing the latest town gossip, but they only spoke in hushed tones. Ben didn’t follow most of it but he managed to pick out a few key phrases.
His first impression was that the women were a sect of nuns, chartered to maintain the grounds. However, upon discovering their affinity for cursing, he altered his assessment.
“You can work at the table,” Maz offered. “No one will bother you here.”
Ben nodded in thanks.
Not a single one of the women bothered to glance up from their work as he unpacked his satchel. Even when his Macbook booted up with the traditional Apple chime, they didn’t turn in his direction.
He breathed a sigh of relief and got to work.
The sun set over Verona, painting the sky a vivid blush of pink, red, and a hint of purple as twilight descended upon the sleepy city.
In the cortile della casa di Giulietta, Ben Solo was scribbling down the last of his notes regarding edits for his first three chapters. His latest novel, still untitled, didn’t have anything wrong with it. He’d spent the entire day drafting an argument against Hux’s feedback. Once his cell was fixed, he intended to share his thoughts with his editor.
“Benjamin?” Maz called to him from where she was standing by the gate.
“Sorry,” he apologized, quickly tucking his items away.
“It’s fine,” she told him with an understanding smile. “How is your romance?”
“It’s not a romance, Maz,” he reminded her.
It felt like the tenth time he’d had to explain his novel wasn’t catering to the masses. Each time she met his rebuttal with a grin as if she was waiting for him to change his answer.
She shook her head, chuckling, as she passed him to lock up the gift shop.
Ben sighed, running a hand through his hair. He’d lost himself in his task and forgotten to check with DJ about the status of his phone. He hoped the technician was open on his stroll back to the villa.
Grabbing his satchel, Ben made his way past the golden statue of Juliet towards the exit. As he pulled the strap over his shoulder, a dove flew out of the tree behind the statue. Ducking, Ben dropped his bag, items scattering across the cobblestone.
“Dammit,” he hissed, checking his laptop first. Luckily, the case protected it from the fall.
Grumbling, he shuffled around on his knees, gathering up his pens and notebook. He reached up, grabbing onto the statue’s hand to pull himself up.
Ben brushed himself off, inspecting the ground for any other misplaced items. That was when he noticed the podium was bare.
In the second it took him to realize the statue was gone, another more pressing matter fell — quite literally — into him.
Ben’s instinctively wrapped his arms around the body of the young woman who had fallen into them.
His question cut off as he stared down into a pair of hazel eyes. He swallowed, drinking in the sight, trying to describe the varying shades of colors he saw in her doe-like orbs. Her nimble fingers scrunched the fabric of his shirt, as she tried to balance on her bare feet. Her eyes were wide, staring into his own with amazement. He’d never seen eyes like hers before. He was mesmerized.
Ben took in her freckles that matched the color of her chestnut hair and felt her slim form shudder in his hold. He swallowed again, desperately trying to remember how to speak.
“She called to you.”
He whirled around to find Maz staring at them from the doorway. With his arms still around the nameless young woman, Ben couldn’t decide where to look.
Maz approached slowly, her eyes flickering from where his hands rested on the girl to empty podium to the girl’s startled expression.
“Hello, child,” Maz spoke as she gently cupped the young woman’s chin. “Benvenuta.”
The girl’s cheeks flushed and she replied, “Grazie per avermi seguito.”
Thank you for watching over me.
Ben stared at them, unsure what was going on. Was it some sort of elaborate prank to play on unsuspecting tourists or could this really be....?
Her attention snapped back to him. Gone was the admiration. Her eyes narrowed and she pulled away from him. “My name is Rey,” she snapped.
She wobbled on shaky legs. Ben caught her before she fell. She glared at him but made no move to dislodge herself.
“What’s going on?” he asked Maz, ignoring Rey’s expression.
“The legend was true. You are her soulmate and she’s yours,” the old woman answered calmly. "You belong to each other."
Both of them stared at one another before turning back to Maz.
Ben paced his bedroom, his heart beating twice as fast as the sound of his feet, heavy on the floor.
It was impossible.
Statues didn’t come to life. They didn’t turn into beautiful women, especially not a beautiful woman, who supposedly was your soul mate. A statue didn’t become flesh and blood and come to live with you.
It had to be a dream, a very strange, vivid dream brought on by the stress of the book launch. Yes, that was it. He was having a mental breakdown. The success had finally gotten to him and he was delusional.
Ben almost had himself convinced, when he heard a knock at his door.
He opened it to reveal Rey. She was drowning in one of his button-up shirts, barefoot and pantless. Perhaps more than pantless. No, he scolded himself. Nothing good could come from that line of thought. Besides, he doubted Maz would have sent her off without any underthings. The old woman had sent Rey home with a basket of clothes and a pair of flats, but she hadn’t worn shoes before, so she insisted on walking around without them.
“Hello,” she said quietly, fingers twisting the cuffs of the long sleeves. They went past her delicate hands, a clear reminder of how tiny she was in comparison to him.
“Hi,” he croaked.
“I’m sorry I snapped at you,” she apologized, eyes on the floor. “Everyone assumes that I’m the real Juliet. They all come to visit and ask for advice and help. I listen to them, day in and day out but they never thank me. They thank her.” She paused, pursing her lips and then she was gazing up at him. “I just wanted you to call me by my real name.”
Ben blinked, confused. “Why do you care what I call you? You don’t even know me.”
“Don’t I?” Rey asked, her lips twitching until she was smirking. “Well, goodnight then, Ben. Or should I call you, Kylo Ren?”
She giggled, turning on her heel and strolling down the corridor to the room he’d given her. She paused at the door, smiling at him over her shoulder before disappearing from sight.
Ben shut his door and resumed his pacing
With the addition of Rey, Ben’s simple routine was dismantled.
He woke the first morning to find her room empty. At first, he thought he’d dreamed her up. Then he spotted his shirt, neatly folded and lying out on the kitchen table. It still smelled like her, like springtime and sunflowers. There was no way he could deny she was real after that.
Once he ran through the entire villa, including the pool he still hadn’t used, Ben checked outside. He found her kneeling in the grass, surrounded by flowers. When he asked what she was doing, Rey gave him a perplexed expression and responded, “Nature is so amazing. Don’t you agree, Ben. Join me.” She patted the grass next to her and he couldn’t find a reason to say no.
She named each one for him in both English and Italian. When she finished, Rey went back and named them in Greek, Spanish, French, German, and Mandarain. She explained her years spent in the courtyard had taught her more than how to listen. She’d picked up on various dialects, which she was all too excited to share with him.
Her curiosity didn’t end with the garden.
The espresso machine fascinated her. After she got over the scent of the ground beans, Rey wanted to know how it operated. She watched it make each of their drinks, captivated by the device. Against his better judgment, Ben took it apart, displaying the insides so she could understand the process. She spent the entire day putting it back together at the kitchen table while he watched her from his seat on the patio.
Like language, Rey had a knack for machines. When Ben woke the second day, she had the parts of a grandfather clock laid out in clusters, like the pieces of a puzzle. She sat cross-legged on the floor, analyzing all the gears and coils.
“Hux is going to murder me,” Ben remarked.
“Who is Hux?” Rey inquired, not bothering to glance up at him. She was too involved in her task.
“My editor,” Ben explained. “This is his house.”
“Is he your lover?” she asked. Ben spat out his coffee, earning an outraged cry from Rey when the liquid hit her back. “What is wrong with you?”
“What is wrong with me?” He sputtered. “You can’t just go asking people things like that?”
“Why not? It’s a perfectly acceptable question.”
“Rey,” he groaned, burying his hand in his palm. “This is the 21st century. It’s not an acceptable question nowadays.”
Her eyes narrowed in that way that meant she was annoyed. “I am well aware, Benjamin,” she grumbled. Oh yeah, she was annoyed. “I was crafted in 2014, not 1500.”
He quirked a brow at her. “Wait, what?”
“I’m not Juliet, remember?” He nodded. “I’m not the original statue either,” she replied as if he should have known. “I’m a replica.”
“Oh.” He rubbed the back of his neck, awkwardly. He didn’t like disappointing her.
Rey resumed laying out the pieces of the clock. After a moment, she asked, “So Hux isn’t your lover?”
“No,” Ben replied flatly. Her shoulders relaxed. He tilted his head, suddenly aware of how tense she’d been. “Uh, I never had a lover,” he admitted, eyes focused on her posture.
She sat up a bit straighter at his admission. It only lasted a second, then she was leaning forward again. “Me either.”
He wasn’t sure why, but her answer had him flushing and he excused himself from the chamber.
The following week, Rey went with Ben into town. With the addition of his new house guest, he’d forgotten about his cell. He’d been too busy answering questions. How far is New York City? What’s it like there? Do you miss it? Ben found himself talking more in one week than he had in his entire life. But it was easy with Rey. He wasn’t irritated by her questions or constantly searching for a way out of the conversation. He enjoyed her company.
“Why haven’t you had a,” she paused, brow furrowed in concentration, “significant other?”
Ben nodded in approval of her word choice.
“I guess I don’t really believe in love,” he told her honestly..
“How could you not believe in love?”
Ben shrugged. “I’ve never seen it, the real thing, I mean.”
He explained his dysfunctional family and the divorce rate in the States and other facts he could recall to support his argument. Rey listened, the edge of her mouth twitching in that way he knew meant she wanted to interrupt but she didn’t. She waited for him to finish.
“You’re afraid,” Rey observed. “That you’ll never find love, so you write it off. It’s easier to pretend it’s not real than face the fact that you’re lonely.”
Ben gaped at her.
Seven days. She’d been in his life for a single week and she already knew him better than he knew himself, or at least she was willing to admit it while he was content to wallow in a state of self-delusion.
“Are you mad?” Rey questioned, worrying on her lower lip.
“No,” he answered and he was surprised to find it was true.
They continued walking in silence until the repair shop came into view.
“Do you want to visit Maz?” Ben offered. “This shouldn’t take long.”
“You don’t want me to go with you?” There was a hint of hurt in her tone.
“I don’t want to waste your time. This guy is kind of a putz.”
Rey made a face. “A putz?”
“Yeah, you know, a lazy person, someone who you can’t count on to do what you asked. A putz,” Ben clarified.
She rolled her eyes and brushed past him, entering the store.
“Buongiorno,” her bright voice called with an impeccable accent.
“Buongiorno, bella,” DJ crooned, leaving his backroom the instant he spotted her.
Ben groaned while he watched them chatting in Italian. Rey wasn’t Juliet but she was naive. She hadn’t interacted with anyone since she came to life besides him and, for a very brief moment, Maz. DJ would take advantage of her kindness and—
“Grazie mille, Davide,” Rey said as she reached across the counter and gave DJ a hug. “Ciao. Ciao.” She kissed each of his cheeks, then turned to leave, tugging on Ben’s sleeve as she passed.
“Uh, what just happened?” Ben questioned, once they were outside.
“Davide is practicing his English. He’s picking it up quite well,” she praised. “Although there was a small misunderstanding around the concept of dates and times. When he told you tomorrow, he meant to say soon. Easy mistake.” She handed him his phone. “Here you go.”
Ben blinked, unable to believe what had just occurred. “How did you do that?”
“Get him to fix it?”
She laughed. It sounded like a bell — light and pure. “It’s talking, Ben. We do it every day. It’s not difficult. People just want to be noticed. They want to know their lives have meaning — that they matter.”
“How do you know?” he asked, skeptically.
Rey gazed over at him, her hazel eyes were more green than brown. “I was in that courtyard for five years. People came from all over to tell me their problems, to ask for advice, and to share their stories. The details differed but, in the end, they all wanted the same thing.”
“To matter,” he remarked.
As they walked back to the villa, Ben thought about his childhood, how he’d grown up, and his life in New York. He’d separated himself. At first, it was for self-preservation but then he’d gotten so used to being on his own, he became intolerant of others. He only saw the worst in people because his family could only see the worst in him.
Rey, on the other hand, had been stuck taking care of people her entire existence. She was revered, not for who she was, but for what she represented. It was that representation she maintained with her new gift of life. She saw the good in everyone, including him.
Where she was soft and gentle, he was brash and blunt. Where she had a slim figure and subtle curves he was broad and built with sharp angles. Where she found the joy in everything, he was debating whether or not it was a scam. They couldn’t have been more different. Or more perfectly matched.
Maz called Rey his soulmate. Ben didn’t believe in soulmates, but he didn’t believe in magical statues turning into attractive young women either.
He snuck a glance over at Rey. She had her arm outstretched so her fingertips could brush across the tops of the plants flowering along the road. There was a smile on her face. She looked happy, peaceful even.
Ben couldn’t remember a time when he’d been that carefree. Between book deadlines, marketing campaigns, and the launches, everything he did revolved around his literary career. He didn’t have time to stop and smell the roses.
“Are you going to hide out on the patio when we get back?” Rey inquired when the villa came into view.
“Probably,” he answered.
“Because I need to work,” Ben told her.
“Do you like your work?” she asked.
“Then why do you look so unhappy?”
“My editor thinks I need to fix my novel,” he revealed.
“Like the phone needed to be fixed?” she inquired.
“No,” he chuckled. “It’s not the same.”
“Oh.” Her brow creased. “Can I help?”
“This isn’t like the espresso machine or the clock, Rey,” Ben stated. Her smile fell away. He cleared his throat, trying to be kinder when he added, “But thank you for offering.”
She reached over and took his hand. “You’re welcome, Ben.”
Ben should have known something was wrong when he woke up. He should have realized the house was too quiet. He should have recognized the fact that Rey wasn’t sitting in the kitchen, waiting for him to make them breakfast. The girl was the size of the models in Milan but she ate like a heavyweight contender.
But Ben didn’t notice either of those things.
He padded barefoot into the kitchen to make two espressos, waiting patiently for the machine to start up. With two cups in his hands, Ben brought the beverages into the garage, where Rey’s latest project — reassembling the vespa — was underway.
Papers were strewn all over the floor and the desk, where Rey was hunched over, scribbling away furiously. At first, Ben thought they were notes or schematics for the motorized scooter. Then he picked one up.
They weren’t notes and they weren’t for the vespa. The papers were the first three chapters of his new novel. And Rey had written all over them.
“What did you do?” he shouted, fury burning through him.
“I fixed it,” she replied offhandedly.
If his anger was off-putting, she didn’t show it. Like when she worked on a dismantled machine, her sole focus was on the task in front of her.
“You fixed it?” Ben stared at her, incredulously.
How dare she ignore him!
“Yes,” Rey responded. “Your narrative was lacking depth and a captivating arc. What you had was a solid foundation. The setting and characters are all well thought-out and established but there is nothing tying them together. There is no conflict,” she explained. “I remedied that.”
Ben felt his hands shaking. The tiny espresso cups rattled against their plates. He set them down on the workbench next to her before he spilled coffee for the second time in Hux’s villa.
“How?” he managed to ask through clenched teeth.
“Here,” she said, handing him a stack of pages from chapter two.
Ben scanned the pages, his eyes pulling out the notations she’d made in the margins. Initially, her suggestions were minor — an adjective change here or a grammatical error fixed there. Then she introduced a new character, a female lead only referred to as ‘the Scavenger’. He flew through the rest of the pages to reveal that this scavenger
seduced his lead knight away from his path.
“What do you think about this for the title?” she asked, passing him another sheet.
She was either completely unaware of his rage or she chose to ignore it. Either way, Ben grew more frustrated with her when he read the three words penned on the paper.
Cerulean and Crimson.
Anger burned within him. Who did she think she was? He’d told her not to get involved. He’d told her she couldn’t fix it. Now he had to clean up this mess. He’d lose hours of potential writing time. If he was lucky, Hux wouldn’t drag his ass back to New York.
“You don’t like it?” Rey surmised.
“You couldn’t leave it well enough alone, could you?” he snarled, gathering up all the sheets.
“You were upset,” she retorted, defensively. “You were barely eating or drinking. You just sat outside all day, cursing at your book and pulling your hair out.”
“I didn’t ask for your help.”
“Not out loud,” Rey argued, crossing her arms over her chest. “But you were one meltdown away from ripping the entire thing to shreds. Why are you so stubborn? What’s so wrong about asking for help?”
“Just because everyone came to you seeking answers doesn’t mean you know anything about anything,” Ben snapped. “You aren’t even the one they wanted to talk to. You’re just a stand-in for the real thing. You’re not the girl from the story. You’re nothing.”
Rey’s eyes widened for a split second, then narrowed into angry slits.
Ben cradled his cheek, his hand cool against the abused skin where her palm made contact. She was shaking, full of fury and tears as she glared up at him defiantly.
“Get out,” he hissed.
She ran. He heard her bare feet smacking against the floor as she fled, out of the villa and out of his sight.
Then he was finally alone.
It was how things were meant to be.
So why did he feel so terrible?
It had been hours since he shouted at her, yet she hadn’t returned.
Guilt sat heavy in his stomach. Ben hadn’t eaten all day, too overwhelmed by his emotions. First the rage, then the terrible gnawing in his gut, demanding he go after her.
Dark clouds were clustered on the horizon, a clear indication of an approaching storm. Ben ran a hand through his hair, nervously, eyes scanning the road for any signs of movement.
No one was coming.
“Dammit,” he hissed.
He grabbed his coat and rushed outside.
Ben hadn’t meant to yell at her. After all, Rey had only been trying to help. Once he’d calmed down, Ben had read all three chapters with her additions.
He didn’t hate it. Ben was loathed to admit it but Rey had been correct. His chapters were lacking something, something his former novels had. He didn’t want to write the same thing. It would be too predictable and her edits gave an interesting layer to his characters.
Ben also appreciated her choice for the title. It was a play on the colors of the lead character’s weapons. It was intriguing and mysterious, which was a surefire way to get people to pick up the book. It invoked a forbidden love element that was sure to drive sales through the roof. His editor would love it.
He had never even spoken to her about his ideas for the novel. Yet, Somehow, she had managed to capture his intentions, as well as his editor’s. She stayed true to his original vision while incorporating Hux’s feedback. As she had promised, Rey fixed it.
And he’d sent her away.
He kicked a pebble across the street, annoyed with himself. The way he’d shouted at her was unacceptable. She’d only been trying to help. She was worried about him. She cared. When was the last time someone had done that?
Idiot, he chided himself.
As if in agreement, the sky burst open and rain poured down. Ben cursed, taking off in a run towards the city.
He checked at the tech shop, with Maz and the ladies at Casa di Giulietta, and the market. Rey was nowhere to be found. Ignoring the rain, which had soaked him through, he continued looking.
Ben passed couples sharing dinner in the pizzerias and cucinas. Safe, warm, together. That’s what they should have been. They should have been at the villa, perched on chairs in the kitchen, sharing a homemade meal and a bottle of vino.
That was what he vowed to do. He’d get them a taxi, take her home, apologize, and make sure she never left again. He just had to find Rey first.
A couple of old men went by him, murmuring about a crying woman in their church. Ben paused.
“Mi scusi, signore. Dove si trova la chiesa?”
Basilica di San Zeno Maggiore was a humble structure in comparison to other churches in the country. Ben wasn’t concerned about what the building looked like, only what it held inside.
He charged in through the double doors, eyes rapidly scanning each pew. He didn’t need to search long. She was all alone, sniffling in the corner.
Her posture went rigid.
He ran over to her, apologies ready to spill out of his mouth but she beat him to it.
“Ben, I’m sorry,” she cried, fresh tears running down her cheeks.
“I’m sorry too,” he replied, gently wiping them away with his thumbs. “I shouldn’t have said that. It’s not true.”
“It is.” She nodded, as another sob broke free. “I’m not her and no one wanted me. No one wants me.”
“I do,” Ben declared. “I want you, Rey.”
She stilled, blinking a few times. “You— you do?”
“Yes,” he promised, leaning forward to kiss her forehead. “Yes, of course.” She stared at him with that same expression of wonder and awe that he’d seen when she’d first fallen into his arms. It was like he was everything to her — her entire world. “As long as you want me too,” he added.
“I do,” she replied.
Ben felt the emptiness in his chest fill with light and warmth. “Yeah?”
She nodded. “Yes.”
He offered her his hand. “Let’s go home.”
Rey slipped her hand in his, then surged up on her tiptoes and kissed him.
Ben was still blushing when the taxi dropped them off at Villa di Hux.
Ben’s routine changed. Each morning, he woke to Rey curled up against his chest. He barely let her out of his sight since that night. He’d press a kiss to her shoulder, then prepared them espresso and cereal. Like him, Rey enjoyed a simple breakfast, though she liked to add fruit on top of hers.
Over breakfast, they’d discuss his novel. He’d share his ideas and Rey would provide her feedback. While he wrote, she wandered in the garden.
After lunch, they’d take a stroll into town. Ben had taken to helping the ladies with their chores around Casa di Giulietta while Maz taught Rey how to cook. She was fascinated by the different flavors. Like everything else, she picked it up fast. She’d even begun to help him make dinner.
Their evenings were spent learning. Ben taught Rey how to swim, finally putting the pretentious indoor pool to use. She shared with him his hearing everyone’s stories had prompted her to help him write one of his own. He told her about his family and she told him about how she’d always wanted one. And then one night, they learned each other.
It started as tentative touches, nervous kisses, and innocent blushing. But their innocence didn’t last. As layers were shed, their touches grew more confident, their kisses more feverish, and there was no need to blush.
Ben ran his hands over every inch of Rey’s sun-kissed flesh. She was as smooth and unblemished as the marble. With the exception of her freckles, which he found went further than the bridge of her nose, she was free of marks or scars yet her body was strong, like a statue. She was perfect.
And she was his.
Having her was unlike any experience he’d had before. It felt like coming home, as though being with her made him complete. It filled all those dark, ugly cracks deep inside of him with a golden light, warm and radiant. She made him feel whole.
Ben finally understood what Maz meant. Rey hadn’t been alive until he held her hand. But neither had he. He’d been living a half-life, going through the motions yet never truly living. He hadn’t found joy in anything, not the way Rey did. She loved every flower she smelled, every food she tasted, and every person she met. She lived each moment with more enthusiasm than he had lived his entire life combined.
That was all about to change.
The next day, while Rey slept naked in his bed, Ben called his editor.
“What do you mean you’re not coming back?” Hux cried in outrage.
“I’m in love,” Ben answered simply.
“What?” Hux asked, confusion and disbelief tainting his normally composed tone.
“I met someone. Her life is here and I want to be with her,” Ben explained.
There was silence on the other end of the line. Then, “Well, you aren’t shacking up in my villa.”
“I already put in a bid on an apartment in town,” he replied. “We will be out of your home as soon as possible.”
“You’re serious,” Hux said with a sigh. “Are you going to keep writing?”
“Yes,” Ben vowed. “Actually, that brings me to one other thing. About the new novel...”
A year later, when Cerulean and Crimson published, it was authored by Kylo Ren and first-time author Kira Kenobi. Their second novel together, Bound, was currently in progress and pre-sales were already record-breaking. Any reservations Hux may have had concerning Ben’s motivations to stay in Italy had long since vanished.
Ben Solo sat on the balcony of his apartment, sipping his espresso while answering emails from Hux. With the time difference, he only had to worry about calls from the redhead in the afternoon. His mornings remained blissfully peaceful.
“Benjamin Organa Solo!”
“Mother,” he groaned as he saw Leia Organa escorting Rey to him.
“You made your pregnant wife go to the market?”
“I didn’t make her do anything,” he argued. “Rey loves going to the market.”
“I do,” his wife smiled over at his mother. “Besides, I’m only in my first trimester.”
Leia rolled her eyes. “When I was pregnant with Ben, Han didn’t let me do anything. I could barely take a shower without that man getting in my way.”
Rey shot him a look.
Before his mother had come to visit that was exactly what Ben had been doing. Rey finally got so annoyed with him, she kicked him out of the apartment until he promised to lighten up.
“The little ones will be fine,” Rey reassured them both, placing a hand on her stomach. “They aren’t coming out for a while yet.”
“They?” Leia’s eyes brightened.
His wife came to stand beside him and he wrapped an arm around her waist. “We were waiting for the right time to tell you. We’re having twins.”
It had been years since Ben had seen his mother cry. And if he happened to tear up a bit, well that was just because the sun was in his eyes.