Friends since they were children, Monica and Russell were inseparable. They went to the same schools and university and moved from Manchester to London after they graduated from university. Whenever people saw them together, they always assumed that they were a couple and they would quickly inform them, “We’re just friends.”
They dated other people but the relationships never worked out and their respective exes always blamed their friendship. Once, Monica’s ex-boyfriend accused her of sabotaging their relationship because she was secretly in love with Russell. She had a run once in with Samantha, a model he was dating who informed her that she didn’t believe that they were just friends. “A person would have to be blind not to see that there is something going on between you two,” she said. “And which woman in her right mind could be just friends with a guy like Russell?”
Russell and Monica laughed about it but as time passed, they realized that there was some truth to what others were saying. They stopped dating other people because they didn’t feel any connection with them and it was beginning to affect their friendship. Russell found himself getting jealous of the men Monica dated and she hated seeing him with other women. So, to safeguard their friendship, they remained unattached. Instead of going to dinner with other people they went each other. They went to the theatre, concerts and now, here they were in Italy for a three week vacation.
Monica stood now on the Spanish Steps as Russell snapped photos of her. He looked so handsome in the white shirt and light blue jeans. She noticed women walking by and casting admiring glances his way. Jealousy gnawed at her although he seemed oblivious to them. She knew she was being ridiculous but she couldn’t help it. She always worried that one day he would meet someone else and fall in love with her. Not wanting to spoil the moment, she smiled and posed for the photos.
The day went pleasantly as they visited the Pantheon and had lunch at a trattoria near the Piazza Navona. After sharing a pizza, she went to the washroom. On her way back to the table, a local looked up at her and said, “Ciao Bella ragazza.” She glanced at him and then continued to where Russell was.
He stood up when she reached him. “What did that man say to you?” he asked. His expression was guarded.
“It sounded like, ‘Ciao bella ragazza,’” she told him.
Russell didn’t answer. Instead, he put on his sunglasses and preceded her out of the trattoria. They went for a walk along Castel Sant’Angelo before they went back to the hotel. They went to their respective rooms until it was time for dinner. The following day, they left Rome and went to Florence where they spent their second week. The highlight for her was Michelangelo’s David. She stood there for a long time just studying it. Afterwards, they visited the Uffizi Gallery. The following day, they took a trip to Milan and after visiting the Santa Maria delle Grazie where Da Vinci’s Last Supper hung, they stopped by the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II. Russell took a photo of Monica outside of Prada. From Florence, they went on a day tour to Pisa, Siena and San Gimignano. They had dinner in Siena in a trattoria in Piazza del Campo.
The week went by very quickly and Monica was sorry when they left Florence but looked forward to seeing Venice. They took the train early in the morning and while Russell read a magazine, she took a nap. When they arrived in Venice, they found out that they had to share a room because the hotel was fully booked. That made Monica very nervous but she was relieved when she saw that there were two separate beds.
They spent their first day in Venice at Piazza San Marco, reputed to be one of the most beautiful squares in the world. They visited the Basilica of San Marco. Before going inside, they took photos of its architecture which was a mixture of Byzantine, Roman and Venetian, the impressive work of artists and craftsmen who came from all over. Monica was enthralled by the dome and could have stood there all day just staring up at it.
When they came out of the basilica, Russell pointed to the one of the arches above the entrance where there was a marble statue of an old man biting his hand. “The legend says that he was relieved of his duties when he said that he would be able to build it even more beautiful.” They had lunch at a restaurant in the square, enjoying the sunshine and watching other tourists. They finished their sightseeing for the day climbing the Campanile for the breathtaking view of the city and the lagoon. They stayed there for a while.
It was late afternoon when they returned to the hotel. They relaxed on the terrace and then it was time to get ready for dinner. It felt strange getting in the bathroom while Russell got dressed in the bedroom. She had to make sure it was safe to come out once she was finished. He looked handsome as usual. And she saw his gaze travel over her. “You look great,” he remarked before turning away. “I was thinking that after dinner, we can go to a church concert.”
She smiled. “That sounds great.” Venice was beautiful at night so it was nice walking to the square. How she longed to hold Russell’s hand, especially when they passed other couples who were holding hands. They had dinner at an elegant restaurant. As they enjoyed the Chicken and Mushrooms and Pasta & Oca respectively, they talked about the places they had visited that day and where they planned on going the next day. For dessert, they had Rosada cream with orange. Afterwards, they walked to the church where they spent the next hour or so listening to uplifting music in a lovely atmosphere.
It was late when they got back to the hotel and she was tired. On the way up to their room, she kept yawning and as soon as they got in she, took out a nightgown from her suitcase and headed straight for the bathroom. She quickly changed out of her dress and into her nightgown and brushed her teeth.
She walked into the room and stopped short when she saw Russell standing there half-naked, holding his pajama shirt. She turned away, flustered but not before her gaze swept irresistibly over the broad shoulders and wide chest. He watched her, his expression tense and a muscle throbbed alongside his jawline. It took every ounce of willpower on his part not to go over there and take her in his arms. Instead, he went into the bathroom and closed the door quietly behind him.
As soon as he was gone, Monica hurried over to her bed and climbed in, pulling the cover up to her throat.
A few moments later, the door to the bathroom opened and Russell stepped into the room. She watched as he walked past her bed to his.
“Goodnight, Russell,” she said, looking over at him as he pulled back the cover and got in. His back was turned to her.
“Goodnight.” He closed his eyes as his body reacted to the memory of her in the champagne colored silk nightgown. He didn’t know how much longer he could continue being just friends with her when he wanted her.
She lay there on her back, staring up at the ceiling, unable to fall asleep. She couldn’t get the image of him out of her mind. When she saw his bare torso, her mouth went dry and what felt like a bolt of electricity surged through her. She had turned away because she was afraid that her feelings would betray her. She wished she had the courage to tell him how she really felt about him but she didn’t want to jeopardize their friendship.
Sometime later, she heard him stir and then get up. In the faint light, she watched him tiptoe over to the chair where his shirt and pants were draped. As he started to get dressed, she sat up, alarmed. “Where’re you going?” she asked, turning on the lamp beside her.
He didn’t turn around. “I thought you were asleep. I can’t sleep so, I’m going out for a bit.”
After he pulled on his shirt and tucked it in his pants, he turned to face her, his eyes wary. “I’ll try not to disturb you when I come back.”
“How long will you be gone?”
“I don’t know,” he replied shortly.
“Where will you go?”
“I don’t know. Maybe I’ll go to Piazzale Roma or the Rialto or San Marco.” He was about to walk past her when she quickly climbed out of the bed and stood in front of him.
“What’s wrong, Russell?” she asked. “You seem upset.”
He kept his eyes on her face, not daring to let them go lower. “I’m not upset.”
“I think you are, “she insisted. “Please tell me what’s wrong. We’re supposed to be friends—”
His expression darkened. “I know we’re supposed to be friends,” he snapped. “But right now, I don’t feel like a friend.”
She looked nonplussed. “What do you mean?”
“This is what I mean,” he muttered before he grabbed her by the shoulders and pulled her roughly against him, making her gasp. His head swooped down and his mouth closed hungrily over hers.
Monica clung to him, kissing him back eagerly, feverishly. As they exchanged kisses, he picked her up and carried her over to her bed. He put her gently down on it and then drew back to remove his shirt. She reached for him, pulling him down to her, her fingers digging into his back as he pressed his lips hotly against her neck.
They made mad, passionate love and the next morning when she woke up, she was alone in the bed. She lay there for a moment thinking it had all been a dream. Then she sat up and realized that she wasn’t wearing anything under the cover. She looked over and saw Russell standing by the window. He was wearing a robe. He turned when he heard her.
He left the window and came and sat down on the bed beside her. His expression was serious when he met her gaze. “Do you regret what happened between us?” he asked.
She shook her head. “No,” she murmured huskily, reaching out and brushing the hair back from his forehead.
He leaned over and kissed her on the shoulder, making her shiver. “Me neither,” he said. “I wanted to make love to you for a very, very long time but you insisted on us being just friends—”
“I thought that was what you wanted,” she said. “You never came out and said otherwise.”
“Do you have any idea how hard it is to be a friend to you when I want to be more? That’s why I couldn’t sleep last night. When I saw you in that nightgown, I wanted you so much. I had to get out of here before I lost my mind.”
“I couldn’t sleep either because I kept thinking about how sexy you look without a shirt…”
His eyes darkened and cupping her face between his hands he lowered his head and kissed her. “I love you, Monica,” he whispered, raising his head to look into her face. “I wanted to tell you that so many times but my courage failed me.”
“I love you too.”
“I just wish we hadn’t wasted so much time dating other people when we should have been dating each other.”
“Let’s not waste any more time having regrets. Things are different between us now.”
“Yes, they are.”
“You know, if anyone were to ask me what the most memorable part of my vacation is, I would tell them that it was the room in Venice.”
“Why this room?” he asked.
“It’s where you and I first made love and declared our feelings for each other. I will always remember this room for those two reasons.”
His eyes darkened. “Let’s have a late breakfast,” he suggested as he removed his robe.
“Or we can order room service,” she said, settling back against the pillows.
“Room service, then,” he agreed before his mouth found hers.