I doubted Aria was in need of my company. She had her family here. This was a way to keep me occupied, nothing else. If he’d wanted a naïve wife, maybe he should have agreed to marry someone younger. But I liked Aria and it would have been rude to retract the invitation, so I smiled tightly. “That’s very considerate of you.” Sarcasm tinged my words. Now that we were married, it would be more difficult to keep up the polite mask.
Dante met my gaze, and there was something in them that made me lower my eyes and grab a Croissant. I wasn’t hungry, but it was better than doing nothing. The rustling of paper drew my attention back to the other end of the table. As expected, Dante had disappeared behind his newspaper. Was this how he wanted our marriage to go? He hadn’t even showed me around the house yet. “Will you give me a tour of the premises? I can hardly host guests without knowing my way around the house.”
Dante lowered his newspaper again and folded it on the table. I felt the unreasonable urge to rip it into shreds. “You are right.”
Excitement bubbled up in me but quickly dissipated at his next words. “Gaby!”
A moment later a door half hidden behind a massive cupboard opened and a short teenage girl entered the room and headed toward Dante. “Yes, sir, how can I help you?”
I had trouble masking my surprise. Gaby looked like she belonged in high school. How could she be the maid in this house?
“My wife,” Dante said with a nod in my direction. Gaby turned toward me briefly with a shy smile. “Would like to get a tour of the house. I’m busy, so please show her around.”
Gaby nodded and walked toward me. “Would you like to go now?” Her voice was hesitant, but I could see curiosity in her eyes. I swallowed the last crumb of my Croissant and poured coffee into my mug. “Yes, please. I’m going to take my coffee with me if that’s okay?”
Gaby’s eyes grew wide and she darted a look toward Dante, who was back to reading his newspaper. He didn’t look busy to me. If he had time to read the news why couldn’t he show me around? But I wouldn’t cause a scene in front of Gaby. Dante must have felt Gaby and me watching him expectantly because he raised his eyes. “This is your home now, Valentina. You can do whatever you want.”
So he had been listening to our conversation. And I wondered if what he said was really the case. I wished I were more courageous so I could test the theory. I turned back to Gaby and cradled my mug in my hands. “Then let’s go.”
She nodded and led me toward the door she’d come through earlier. “We could start in the kitchen and staff room?”
“Do whatever you think is best,” I said. “You know the house better than I do.”
Again a shy smile flitted across her face. Behind the door was a narrow corridor, which led into a vast kitchen. Potts hung from hooks attached to the ceiling. Everything was stainless steel and it reminded me more of a canteen kitchen than a place where family meals were prepared. A round older woman stood at the oven and checked the temperature. Inside what looked like a lamb roast was cooking. I assumed this was the cook, Zita. She turned around as she heard us enter and wiped her hands on her white apron. Her black hair had gray streaks in it and was secured in a hair net atop her head. I guessed she was in her mid-fifties.
“I’m giving our mistress a tour of the house,” Gaby said excitedly. I startled at the use of mistress. That sounded like I was a whip wielding dominatrix. Maybe Dante was comfortable being called ‘Sir’, but I definitely couldn’t live with ‘mistress’.
“Please call me Valentina,” I said quickly. “Both of you.” I smiled at Zita but she didn’t return the gesture. Her lips were pursed and she was scanning me from head to toe with a look of disapproval on her face.
“It would have been nice to meet you before the wedding,” Zita said haughtily.
I forced my face to remain calm even if I didn’t like her tone. I didn’t want to start off on the wrong foot with the service personnel in the house. “Dante never invited me, and I didn’t think it appropriate to invite myself.”
She huffed. “He introduced Mistress Carla to us before the wedding.”
I stiffened at the mentioning of Dante’s first wife, couldn’t help it. I could hear the judgment in her voice. She thought me less worthy than Carla. I had a feeling she wouldn’t let me forget it. I wasn’t looking forward to a battle of wills with her, and I definitely didn’t have the patience for it today. I looked around the kitchen instead, trying to pretend I wasn’t bothered by her comment. “So did Carla cook here often?”
Zita gave me a shocked look. “Of course not. She was the mistress of the house. She didn’t cook or clean. That’s what I and Febe did, before Gaby took Febe’s place.”
Gaby shifted nervously. It was clear that she didn’t know what to do.
“Well, you can expect me in the kitchen often. I love to cook,” I said.
Zita straightened her shoulders. “I don’t know if Master Dante will allow it.”
I took a sip from my coffee, returning her gaze steadily. “Dante told me I could do whatever I want.” She looked away from me with a frown. I knew it wasn’t over yet.
“Why don’t you show me the rest of the house, Gaby? I need to make sure I’m ready when Aria arrives.”
Gaby bobbed her head quickly. “Of course, Mis…Valentina.”
She led me into the room behind the kitchen. It seemed to be a sort of common room for the staff. There were two cots, a small TV and a couch. No chairs or table, but I assumed the staff usually gathered around the wooden table in the kitchen, since it obviously wasn’t used for Dante’s meals. There was also a small bathroom with a shower behind a white door. “Is this where you and Zita spend your time when you don’t work?”