I am fully convinced there is nothing greater in life than relaxing by the pool with a cocktail.
Well. That’s only after shopping, and judging by the screaming and clattering coming from the house behind me, I’m not going shopping any time soon.
“Marina,” Mamma shrieks from her office window, “Did you really spend ten thousand euros in one day?”
Like she hasn’t dropped more than that on a single pair of shoes. At least I managed to buy more than just one pair.
I don’t even bother turning away from our glittering turquoise pool. In fact, I don’t even yell back at her, instead, favouring another sip of my cosmopolitan. She must be looking through last month’s finances and if that’s the case, I’ll argue my point over lunch.
One of our many house-elves brings my mail out on a silver platter. Since it’s the first of the month, a stack of glossy magazines sits beside my usual handful of letters. I already know who the first letter is from - the familiar hearts dotted on the top of the ‘i’s in my surname means the sender is the one and only Lily Luna Potter. A large black marker rolls between the stacks.
The house-elf gently places the platter on the table beside my chaise lounge and scampers off. I slide the first magazine atop the pile into my hands and flick it open. I don’t spend much time looking at the words, instead I flick through the photos, admiring a few pieces. Eventually, I pick up the marker and circle a few pictures, ripping out the pages to leave in totally obvious spots around the mansion. It’s never too early to start laying the foundations for presents.
Especially since I’m turning seventeen this year.
My coming-of-age is not something my mamma has been looking forward to, as it means the end of my father paying her. On the other hand, my father probably won’t even remember the date. His personal assistant will just send me a card a day late with a transfer receipt from Gringotts stuffed in it.
However, I have been thoroughly enjoying knowing that in exactly five months, I’ll be a legal adult. At least, I will be in the wizarding world, and anyone in the Muggle world can be won over with the right price.
I mean, I won’t have access to the trust fund that my father set up until I turn twenty-two, but it’s not like I’m going to suddenly get cut off from the Bianchi fortune.
I spend so much time baking in the rays of the sun, I think I’m imagining the sound of the bell for lunch.
I do, however, hear the pitter-patter of exposed feet and soft squeaks of pain approach me.
“Miss?” Another one of our house-elves whimpers.
I turn slowly, lifting my Dior sunglasses and squinting at the house-elf, who is doing her best to keep a straight face as the soles of her feet are, without a doubt, burning up.
“Lunch is served, miss.”
“Alright, I’ll be in soon. Fetch me my coverup.”
The house-elf scampers off and I can hear her sigh of relief as soon as she gets back into the shade. If Mamma was on a business trip right now, I’d have lunch outside, but unfortunately she’s home and that means every meal is in the dining room.
I slide my feet into my jewel-encrusted sandals and finish my cocktail. I slip out from underneath the white parasol that offers next to no shade - which is the best way to get a tan, if you ask me - and head inside the mansion.
The Bianchi mansion has been in our family for at least seven generations - it is one of three completely Unplottable homes we have, nestled in the mountains of the French-Italian border. One of the others is an apartment hidden in the centre of Rome, which was in the Volta family until Nonno Bianchi married Nonna Volta. The other is an apartment hidden in central London. We have Muggle homes all over Europe, Mamma needs them for the family import-export business. It’s quite difficult to get a Muggle into an Unplottable home without Obliviating them.
But out of all twenty-six homes we own, the Bianchi mansion is by far the grandest. Every room is spacious enough that I could probably have my school year stay here without running into them. Which would be a blessing if one of the Potter-Weasley spawn were to stay - the only exceptions being Molly Weasley and Lily Luna, of course.
We keep all twelve of our house-elves employed here, with Mamma’s two favourites making the trip to any of our other homes if needed. She regularly complains about them, but I find they can get nearly anything done in next to no time at all and they’re quite good company when they need to be.
Merlin knows living out here gets lonely.
As I walk through the kitchen, the house-elf scurries up towards me, a bundle of fabric that looks like my favourite summer dress clutched in her bony hand.
“Do you mind?” I demand, snatching it off the tiny figure and unravelling it, “You’ve ruined it by holding it like that.”
With a click of her fingers, the house-elf has smoothed out the wrinkles on my dress so I slide it on and head towards the dining room.
Sure, house-elves can just do magic at the click of their fingers, but it’s the principle that has me annoyed. They shouldn’t be carrying clothes like that in the first place.
“Marina,” Mamma says as I cross the threshold, not even bothering to put down her newspaper, “So glad you could finally join me.”
“Sorry Mamma,” I reply, not sounding apologetic in the slightest. Then again, she knows I hate being called Marina, as my father is the one responsible for the name. Everyone at school was more than happy to start calling me Aurora once second year started, in fact, Tessa had preferred it. It's much easier to make a nickname out of Aurora than Marina.
“Have you meditated today?” She asks, flicking the page.
“Yes, Mamma,” I reply, helping myself to a handful of cherry tomatoes. I hadn’t meditated exactly like she’d instructed me, but I had spent two hours laying in the sun, which is kind of the same thing. And I haven’t had a bad migraine since my Astronomy exam - just a few softer headaches here and there - so it's not like I even need to.
Nothing a shot or two of Firewhisky couldn’t fix.
“Good,” She begins, but is interrupted by my one of my father’s personal owls landing on the back of her chair, a crumpled envelope in attached to its claws. “Oh for god’s sake.”
I don’t say anything as I continue to eat my lunch. Merlin knows I’m in the shit already.
“At least your father can deliver on time,” Mamma mutters as she waves her wand over the tattered paper, ironing out what must be a receipt for his mandatory child maintenance payments.
The only time I hear from my father is when he delivers those payments.
“Here, Marina,” Mamma says as she waves her wand and a small piece of paper floats to my end of the table.
I unfold the parchment and read the message inside. It’s not even my father’s handwriting, in fact, I don’t think he’s handwritten me anything since I was a child. I can faintly recall he hand-wrote The Warlock’s Hairy Heart, a tale that gave me nightmares, in a leather-bound journal for me, thinking I’d like it.
Instead, in handwriting that must belong to his latest personal assistant, reads:
“Congratulations on your O.W.L results! Love, Dad.”
It takes all of my self control to not set the paper on fire.
“Did you buy yourself a nice dress?” Mamma asks after letting me simmer for a few moments.
“The order,” She says simply from behind the pages of Barron’s.
Oh. That. I’d almost forgotten about my impulse spending spree.
She pauses for a second before turning the page again. “Do you have a pair of shoes that aren’t six inches high?”
I can’t help but drop my fork. “What?”
“Marina,” Mamma scolds, “I said, do you have a pair of shoes that aren’t heels?”
“Uh, no. Why?”
“We have a business meeting tonight.”
“We? Business meeting?”
This is a development. Not only was I banned from even breathing near her study as a child, but I was sent up to my room when she received so much as a phone call.
“You’re taking me to a business meeting?”
“Well, I’ll be discussing business and I need you to entertain his son.”
“Entertain? His son?”
“Yes.” She actually drops the magazine, but it might be because she’s offended I’m being so slow. “The González family are looking to ship to Europe and I was their first port of call. I don’t want to be outnumbered, so I need you to take Eduardo out for the evening.”
“Mamma! I’m with Ryan.”
How she's forgotten that is completely and utterly beyond me.
“Ryan? What is that boy going to offer you? I’ve told you a hundred times Marina, that boy is useless. You're much better off with a Muggle man with money.”
I don’t have words. She knows how I feel about Ryan, we’ve been together for nearly four years now! We’re practically engaged - Ryan’s said the only thing that’s stopped him is the fact I’m not of age.
But she doesn’t let me speak. She picks up her magazine and continues to leaf through the pages.
“The González boy is only six-two so don’t even think about wearing your Louboutins.”
Unbelievable. “What else am I supposed to wear?”
“We’ll get you some flats to wear before. You need to charm him, and you can’t do that if you’re towering over him.”
I nod my head in resignation and pick up my fork. There’s no point arguing that I’m with Ryan, it’ll just end up with us both talking in circles and me getting kicked out for the night.
“Do I need to wear a particular colour?” I ask after a while, dejected. Mamma is always incredibly particular with what clothes she wears to certain meetings and I need to be if I’m involved.
“I don’t think you’ll mortally offend anyone, just make sure it’s decent, Marina.”
I want to sigh, but I bite my tongue. She uses the receipt from Gringott’s as a bookmark in her magazine.
“Is it decent?” She demands.
I have to consider it.
The dress is a gauzy white with black polka dots and a deep v-neck, which might as well be an exhibit for my sliver of cleavage. But it does cover my ass, arms and my abdomen, which wins it the title of ‘most modest’ in my wardrobe. The bishop sleeves elevate it from a normal, everyday dress into something I could wear to Hogsmeade on a date - with the right accessories, of course.
“Decent enough,” I say after a while.
“Good. I’ll be Apparating us in an hour, pack what you need for the night.”
I take this as my sign to leave, just in case things start flying in my direction, and head up to my room to pack some things. I brush past the house-elves waiting in line by the open doorway for their cue to remove the dishes and storm up the grand staircase and towards my wing of the house. After living in a tiny cottage in Godric’s Hollow for the first eleven years of my life, moving to Italy was one hell of a change.
Not only do I have a house-elf on demand, I’ve got a bathroom larger than the girl’s dormitory at school, a separate study area and an entire walk-in wardrobe. Every part of the ancestral Bianchi mansion is opulent, no expense too grand for one of le case sacre.
My room remains largely the same, unlike our kitchen, which was renovated for the third time while I was sitting my OWLs. I’ve had the worn out red carpets removed and a new mattress installed, with a handful of the house-elves being tasked with keeping my room in a livable state for the entire year.
They do not get paid just to let my room get dusty and disgusting when I’m not there.
I don’t even bother peeling off my coverup - Mamma probably has something important planned if we’re leaving so early just for one meeting - and my soft leather suitcase is split open on my four-poster bed, ready to be filled. It’s only one night, but I have to look my best at all times, so I pack my new pyjamas, a blush-pink satin slip with a matching kimono and a pair of fluffy white slippers. The dress gets folded carefully and packed up and I slip a pair of heels on just in case Mamma decides she wants me ready at this exact moment.
Patience is not a virtue in our household. It’s a waste of time.
I head towards my vanity and pack up all the makeup I might need for the night - Merlin knows what my mamma wants from me - and I head back towards my bed. My mail has re-appeared on my bedside table, the loops of Lily Luna Potter staring at me. I strut over, grab the envelope and shove it in my suitcase. Whatever she needs, it’ll have to wait.
I long to be curled up in my bed, shielded by my scarlet curtains, but instead I stand in the foyer of the Four Seasons, my glossy hair perfectly curled, clad in the flattest shoes known to mankind.
The González family have already tarnished their reputation by daring to be more than a minute late. Anyone who isn’t so finely-tuned to my mamma’s moods might not notice it, but she reeks of anger. The receptionist smiles meekly from behind his desk, isolated in the center of a marble lake.
“Have you got plans?” Mamma demands, checking the time on her delicate gold watch.
I know better than to have not planned anything.
“I made reservations at three restaurants, two wine bars and organised a late-night walk in Orto Botanico di Brera.” I reply, checking my phone for the time. Three minutes past eight. Someone is going to be in deep, deep shit.
For once in her lifetime, my mamma has the decency to say something remotely positive. “Good.”
It’s not exactly like I’m going to be winning an Order of Merlin for my organisational skills tonight, but given that I don’t want to be here, I think I’m doing quite well. The clock ticks to six minutes past eight.
I think that my mamma is going to skin this González man alive, but when she embraces him with all the charm in the world, I’m a little confused.
She says something in Spanish, and then returns to Italian to hiss at me. “Speak to him!”
I glance towards the man my mamma will be doing business with, lean forward and kiss him on both cheeks, the way I was taught to greet people as a child.
“You must be Marina?” He says, a slight accent to his words. His brown eyes twinkle in the light of the chandeliers. His face feels vaguely familiar in the same way that I can half-recall a dream. His edges seem fuzzy - almost grey, a murky sort of colour that I wouldn’t expect out of a businessman.
“Yes,” I reply, flashing my straight, white teeth at the man in an attempt at friendliness. Before I start lying through them. “It’s a pleasure to meet you.”
“Likewise, when I heard that Aurora had a daughter the same age as my Eduardo, I couldn’t believe it!” He smiles, half-sincerely, half like a Basilisk about to devour its prey. “He’ll be down in a minute, his mother just rang.”
Fortunately, after four years of dominating the Hogwarts social scene, I can handle this. His attempts to be intimidating are long-lost on me.
It takes more than that.
A five o’clock shadow of stubble hides his chin, as if he couldn’t be bothered to shave for us, which I find mildly offending. Mamma doesn’t seem to take it to heart, but judging by the contents of a manila folder she made me look at while the house-elves gave me a mani-pedi, he’s always like this.
The face of his son, who is a year older than me in the awkward crux between man and boy, is now burned into the back of my head. He’s six-two with a face like a fish and the haircut of someone who failed military school. He isn’t known to speak Italian, but he can speak English, so that will at least bridge the gap between us.
There was no comment on his schooling, so I’ve already decided to keep my wand safe in an inside pocket and my gift for tonight, a new necklace with a step-cut emerald that’s about the size as my pinky nail, has been imbued with every single Protego for safety. What kind of shipping business requires protection spells is beyond me, but I’m not going to argue. It’s a sort-of security blanket and a gentle nod towards my school loyalty. I can barely feel the delicate gold chain around my neck, but even the knowledge that it’s there reassures me.
Mamma and Mr González converse quietly in Spanish, a conversation I can tell is nothing deeper than small talk, as we wait for Eduardo.
My phone hums in my hand and I take a moment to check it. I never get signal at home - it’s one of the side effects of living in the middle of nowhere in a magical mansion - so most of my texts start coming through now. A few from Vari, several from Scorpius, one or two from the boys on the Quidditch team and absolutely nothing from my beloved boyfriend.
hey babe, have u heard from tessa lately? she’s been really quiet. hope ur holidays are going well xx
My phone recognises my face and unlocks, letting me type out a quick response.
She hasn’t been texting you?
My phone hums again less than a second later.
no. weird, right?
My nails click against my phone screen as I tap out my reply.
Yeah, she’s probably working though.
My phone buzzes again, but Mamma’s elbow meets mine in a sharp jab. I look up and find myself face-to-face with none other than Eduardo Torres González. He doesn’t look like such a fish in comparison to the photo but he is still sporting the failed attempt at army-chic hair. His eyes are surprisingly blue, like a pixie, and equally as mischievous. His gaze slips down to my necklace, an eyebrow raising slightly, before his eyes lock on to my slight cleavage.
It would appear that today is going to be a test of my self-control.
He takes my hand, raises it to his lips and plants a kiss on the back.
“Mucho gusto,” He says softly, his grin alarmingly devious.
All I can hear in my head is Mamma’s command. Charm him.
Every part of me is itching to run, but I inhale, the smell of his cologne overwhelming my senses. I have no other option than to do as I’m told. As much as it repulses me, everything about tonight will be part of a performance. I lower my head and force myself to blush, looking up through my lashes.
He takes the slightest step back, a move I wouldn’t have noticed if I wasn’t so anxious, and gasps, barely audible. Our parents, who are now arm-in-arm and walking towards the exit, are none the wiser.
“Are those contacts?”
I brush a strand of hair behind my ear and look as bashful as I can, praying I haven’t butchered an attempt at a shy smile. It’s a carefully calculated move - one that worked on Ryan all those years ago. The fact he’s even commenting on my eyes makes me feel nauseous.
The truth is, that my eyes are a constant reminder of my father. Aside from the mismatched eyes - one green and one dark brown - I am the spitting image of Mamma. The eyes are what betray me when I look in the mirror. The one slice of him I can’t quite shed, unlike my name.
But Eduardo doesn’t know that.
He doesn’t need to know that.
“No,” I reply, “They’re natural.”
“Wow,” he breathes before straightening out his suit jacket and I can tell, by the sparkle in his eyes, that he’s not being sincere.
I take a moment to drink in his choice of clothes - a crisp, white shirt with smart black trousers and a blazer to match. His shoes are classic: shiny black leather tapered to a square toe and laced up neatly.
He offers me his arm and I accept it, looping my arm into his and resting my crimson talons on his clothed forearm.
If he wants to play this game, he better get ready.
I’m Aurora Bianchi.
I don’t lose.
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