Love, Eternally
Author:Morgan O'Neill

PART ONE

Chapter 1

Present Day, Italy

She looks at the world through bitch-colored glasses.

Gigi Perrin put the newspaper down. Bitch? She hated the word, even as she admitted grudging admiration for the music critic’s nimble play on words. Cheap shot, though. Funny thing, the guy had been really pleasant during the interview. So, why had he blindsided her, claiming she was self-absorbed, caring little for the world beyond her music?

Drumming her fingers on the armrest, Gigi pressed her forehead against the window of the private jet and stared out at the clouds. Okay, okay, one miserable review out of a hundred. Stuff happens.

As the pilot began his descent, she caught glimpses of the Apennines poking through thinning clouds. Undoing her ponytail, Gigi let her strawberry blond curls fall loose on her shoulders, then took the last sip of her mimosa. Welcoming the slight buzz, she gave the empty glass to the flight attendant.

A glimmer drew Gigi’s eye. The yellow diamond gracing her right hand caught the light. It was the first big purchase she’d made with her money, a “way to go, girl” gift. She glanced at her empty left hand and shook her head. She wasn’t ready for that kind of commitment.

But what about Yves? Gigi sighed. Handsome, a lifelong sailor. They’d met a few months earlier in Marseille, and he was such an improvement over her previous dating disasters. Since she’d been discovered at the Festival d’Avignon and her debut album had skyrocketed to number one, famous men weren’t exactly breaking down her door for dates, and normal guys were either petrified by her celebrity or tried to take advantage of her. Yves, however, was utterly unaffected by anything to do with fame or money. Nice, sweet, fun to be with. Then again, she couldn’t imagine him as anything more than a boyfriend.

Gigi knew she should be on top of the world, but something was missing, and it wasn’t a man. Despite her success, she didn’t know where her life was headed, and she worried the bad review hit closer to home than she wanted to accept. She needed to inspire people, not just entertain them, but wasn’t sure how.

She looked out the window at Forli Airport. When the plane’s wheels touched down, she picked up her flute case and purse and slung both straps over her shoulder. As the jet came to a stop, a black, full-sized Mercedes sedan eased alongside.

She stepped off the plane. The sun was intense, even hotter than it had been in southern France. Jack Benton, her manager, leapt out of the car. He was a large, silver-haired man, impeccably turned out in a cream-colored linen suit and lavender tie.

“Welcome to Italy, kiddo!”

“Hey, Jack.” Gigi climbed into the back seat. The air conditioning felt wonderful after the blistering tarmac. Clasping the flute case, she tossed her purse onto the back ledge. The car moved toward the security gates, then merged onto the main road. The town of Forli was filled with old stone buildings shuttered against the August sun, the streets deserted except for a few people zipping by on mopeds.

“When is Yves coming?” Jack asked.

“Noon, Saturday.”

“Okay, I’ll make sure the car is there for him. So, your parents are after me about scheduling some vacation time with you. Your dad said his caseloads have finally eased up.”

Gigi smiled. Her parents were both senior partners at a big Seattle firm specializing in international law, and she didn’t believe for a moment either one of them had anything but huge caseloads all the time. They missed her and wanted a visit, but she’d met them in London at Christmas and she was so busy right now.

“You won’t have time to see them now that your tour’s about to start,” Jack continued. “Afterward, maybe, how ’bout somewhere in France? Avignon? Your dad’s sister still lives there, right?”

Gigi glanced out the window. Twisted umbrella pines told of prevailing sea breezes. The ocean wasn’t far away and her mind wandered toward thoughts of swimming and sailing. She leaned her head back and let Jack ramble, knowing she didn’t need to answer him right now. They’d go over the details after she settled in.

The car slowed and Gigi saw the hotel was a modern high-rise, nondescript except for rows of potted lemon trees gracing the main entrance. She grabbed a pair of large sunglasses from her purse and shoved them on her nose, hoping to preserve her anonymity. She got out just as the bellhop arrived with the luggage cart. When Jack motioned for her flute case, she shook her head. She wouldn’t entrust her baby to anyone else.

A throng of smiling hotel staff lined the foyer. The manager came forward with a bouquet of red roses. She breathed in their perfume and thanked him.

“Oh, look!” a woman cried out. “It’s Geneviève Perrin!”

She saw a handful of American tourists hurrying toward her. Removing her sunglasses, she greeted them with a smile. The manager took back the roses as Gigi signed autographs and chatted with her fans.

Another hotel clerk wove through the crowd, holding a padded envelope. “Mail for you, Miss Perrin.”

Jack took the package, while Gigi said to an admirer, “I hope you can make it to my concert next week.”

“I tried, but it’s all sold out.”

Gigi glanced at Jack. “Can we do something — ?”

“Oh, look!” one of her fans exclaimed. “She has her famous flute with her.”

Gigi felt a sharp tug at her shoulder and twisted away.

The manager shouted for security and pushed Jack and Gigi toward the elevators.

“It’s okay,” Gigi protested, straining to see what was happening in the lobby. The elevator doors opened and Jack steered her inside. Frazzled, Gigi leaned against the wall. The doors closed. “She shouldn’t have touched my flute, but she wasn’t trying to take it. I was fine. The manager overreacted.”

“I wouldn’t worry about it.”

“But I don’t want anyone arrested.”

Jack nodded as he passed his key in front of the security screen and the elevator started. “I’ll call the manager and step in if he tries to take it too far. I can send them some concert tickets.”

“All right.” Gigi took a deep breath. “Maybe Provence would have been a better choice for a vacation. Yves and I are never bothered there.”

“I know, kiddo,” Jack lamented, “but it’s a trade off. Loss of freedom for fame. You’ll get used to it.”

Would she? Gigi knew she was gaining the world and yet losing access to a big part of it, all at the same time. She looked around the elevator; the walls seemed to close in. Was this her future? Guarded estates and security guards? No more spur-of-the-moment anything? She sighed and smiled bravely at Jack.

“You’re gonna be okay,” he said gently, giving her the envelope. “So, who sent you mail?”

Gigi turned it over and saw the handwriting. “My parents,” she said, surprised. She usually just talked with them on the phone, and it wasn’t anywhere near her birthday. Her big twenty-fifth was still months away. What was so important they’d chosen to send it here?

The elevator doors slid open. “We’re across from each other,” Jack said, pointing to her suite and handing her a key card.

“Okay.” Gigi turned toward the door, eager to find out what the envelope held.

“Hey, kiddo, there’s one more thing I need to run by you.”

She looked at Jack. “What’s up?”

“The mayor’s wife is having a birthday party tonight and we’re invited.”

She rubbed her eyes. “That’s nice, but I’m tired. Go ahead without me, okay? Just make an excuse.”

Jack studied his shoes, then glanced up and smiled. “I, uh, I said you’d play for them. They begged, Gigi. They’re huge fans.”

She stared at him, dumbfounded. “But I’m supposed to be on vacation.”

“I know, but say you’ll do it. You can relax after that. You’ll have five whole days before you start final rehearsals. Besides, you should see where they’re having the party. It’s Roman. And the acoustics are amazing — I already checked it out. Look, I know you, and if you wandered in there you’d be playing anyway, just for the sheer beauty of the place. You’ll be sorry if you miss it.”

She groaned inwardly. He knew exactly how to hook her. “But Jack — ”

“You’re not getting the jelly fingers again, are you?”

Gigi rolled her eyes. “No, I’m okay. I haven’t had shaky fingers for ages, so don’t go putting that in my head.”

“Sorry.” Jack laughed. “Aw, c’mon, play. It’ll give us some great publicity. You’ll have the entire country in your pocket, with such a nice gesture.”

She tried to hide her smile. “You’re a monumental pain.”

“Then you’ll do it? Perfect!” He grinned. “Dress is black tie. I’ll meet you in the lobby at six-thirty.”

Actually looking forward to her evening, Gigi closed her door and tore open the envelope. Inside, she found a small box and a note from her dad. Smiling, she read:

Chère Gigi,

When we heard you would be in Ravenna, we decided it was a perfect time to send this on. Your grandfather loved it there, especially the Mausoleum of Galla Placidia. Do you recall which song he always sang to your grandmother? He said the mausoleum was the inspiration for it.

I hope this gift will help you remember your special friendship with Grand-père. Perhaps it will give you comfort when you feel lonely, so far from your family.

Mom and I send our love.

Gros bisous, Papa.

Her eyes misted. Big kisses back at you, Dad.

She had no doubt now as to the contents of the box. Fingers trembling, she opened it, and tears spilled down her cheeks. It was Grand-père Perrin’s old Roman ring. She had never seen it off his big hand.

A note was tucked in with it, the handwriting spidery and frail, so unlike her grandfather’s normally bold script. She wiped her eyes to read:

“Mon Chou,

It strikes me hard I will never see you again …”

The whole world stopped, and Gigi realized he’d known he was dying. But she had been told it was sudden, unexpected — not that he knew.

Grand-père, why didn’t you tell me? she thought in agony. I would have come.

Her mind veered to the last time she’d seen him, two months before he died and just before she’d been caught up in her first tour. He’d been quieter than usual, but seemed just fine, sitting by his fire, rifling through his heap of books, telling her he’d discovered something new about their genealogy. But she’d only half-listened to him. At the time, her plans for shopping and nightclubbing seemed much more important.

What pain had her indifference caused him? If only she’d realized what was happening to him, if only she’d stayed with him that evening, held his hand and listened.

She took a deep breath and read on:

Know that I love you for who you are, but I sense you strive for independence and a greater purpose in life. I will not be here to guide you as you seek your destiny, so I leave you this ring and a favorite quote — “The purpose of life is not to be happy. It is to be useful, to be honorable, to be compassionate, to have it make some difference that you have lived, and lived well.” Ralph Waldo Emerson.

Dearest Geneviève, may you live well. I know you shall. Always help those in need, my darling girl. Your heart is so full of love.

Your grand-mère and I will watch over you from Heaven.

Ton grand-père.

He was the only one in the family who called her by her given name, and she realized she would never again hear him softly sing something old and dear, his special song for her, “O Geneviève, sweet Geneviève.”

Dear Grand-père, what I wouldn’t give to hear you sing that one more time.

She ran her finger over the carved red stone. Winged Victory. To her grandfather’s amusement, she used to call it the “dancing girl” ring. It was so gorgeous, the message so special. He’d always been there for her, had never once judged or condemned, and even now he touched her life. But how would she live up to such high expectations? What could she do?

“Merci, mon pote,” she whispered. “I think of you every day.”

She slipped the ring over her middle finger. The garnet shimmered with ancient beauty, the carving delicate and superbly detailed, but the ring was still much too big to wear. Gigi laughed through her tears, recalling how she’d reassured her grandfather from the time she was very young that she would grow into it one day.

She grabbed her purse and searched through it until she found her jewelry bag. Taking out a gold necklace, she strung it though the ring and placed it around her neck. Perhaps she’d get the ring sized one day, but for now this seemed right.

“I want this close to my heart,” she said to herself.

Her eyes welled once more, and she touched the ring, seeking solace in heartfelt memory. “Thank you, Grand-père,” she whispered. “I’ll always love you.”

• • •

Sunglasses firmly in place, Gigi adjusted her chiffon wrap to cover her hair as she walked off the elevator and into the quiet hotel lobby. She felt better now, her regrets soothed by her recollection of the many phone calls she’d exchanged with her grandfather in the weeks before his death, wonderful conversations filled with loving thoughts and happy memories.

Dressed in one of her slightly over-the-top concert gowns of flowing aqua-blue silk — perfect with her green eyes — Gigi had her flute case in hand, waiting for Jack. Pleased for having thought to ask the concierge about a birthday greeting, she repeated the words newly learned, “Buon compleanno.”

She’d also asked about the mausoleum, because she planned to go there first thing in the morning. He had told her Galla Placidia was a Roman princess, and the mosaics in her ceiling were world famous, depicting all the stars in heaven. He also said the ceiling had inspired Cole Porter to write his most famous song, “Night and Day.”

That was it, Grand-père’s favorite. Smiling, Gigi recalled hearing him whistle the tune; she just hadn’t realized the significance.

Jack arrived and they left for the baptistery. Minutes later, Gigi stepped out of the Mercedes. Before her stood an octagon-shaped brick building, surrounded by a colorful garden. She glanced at Jack, but he was discussing something with the driver, so she headed off on her own. She could see the remains of the baptistery’s ancient door sunken partway into the ground. The structure had to be really old, if the original level was that far down.

Gravel crunched beneath her feet, the sound of traffic from the nearby Piazza Kennedy fading with each step. Sweet, flowery air wafted over her. Outside the entry, a lone palm stood sentinel, surrounded by riotous sprays of orange and white gladiolas. Beside the door, a plaque read “Battistero Neoniano.”

She stepped inside. Sunlight poured through the windows, illuminating a pulpit and several dozen modern gilded chairs. Recessed chapels lined the perimeter, the walls painted with frescoes. She looked up, slowly turning. Glittering above, richly colored mosaics rose to the top of the dome. There, images of Peter, Paul, and the other Apostles seemingly whirled toward a central golden medallion, where Jesus was depicted being baptized in the Jordan.

Taking off her sunglasses, she picked up an English language brochure and read:

“The Battistero Neoniano is the most ancient of Ravenna’s monuments. Constructed by order of Emperor Honorius early in his reign, the original building was completed in A.D. 402. However, the mosaics and frescoes were not added to the baptistery’s Nymphaeum until after A.D. 452, the work commissioned by Bishop Neon.”

The building was late Roman and perfectly preserved. She stepped to the railing surrounding the empty baptismal font and was surprised by the drop, maybe ten feet down. The font was big, too, a Texas-sized hot tub. The Romans must have been into full-body immersion.

“Wow,” she said, listening to the echo. “Hey!” She grinned, her own voice coming back at her, crisp and clear. Jack was right. The acoustics were perfect.

Gigi noticed someone had placed a wrought-iron candelabrum on the pulpit, and she guessed that was to be her stage. She flicked open the case latches and put her golden flute together. She couldn’t wait to play.

But what? She was suddenly unsure of her repertoire. Most of her pop-rock stuff seemed inappropriate for such an ancient setting. It was a given she’d play “Night and Day” and something classical like “O Mio Babbino Caro,” but which song to start? Then she thought of the perfect choice: Charlotte Church’s “Just Wave Hello.” She knew it by heart, and the flute overture was one of the most beautiful in modern music.

Gigi held the flute to her lips, her eyes closing as the first evocative notes surrounded her, echoing back and dancing around the walls like magic. She was transported to another realm, and for the few minutes the song lasted, she felt blissful.

Then, as the final notes faded, she smiled, replaced her flute, and decided to head back outside to find Jack. She opened the door to a glorious pink sunset and was surprised by at least two dozen people in formal dress, who broke into applause.

“Oh, thank you,” Gigi said. “Grazie, grazie.” The birthday party for the mayor’s wife had certainly turned into an event.

Jack approached and spoke in her ear, “Damn, I should have expected this. I ought to have a camera and recording crew here.”

“So, you’re saying you don’t always think of everything?” she teased.

He gave her a crooked smile. “Here’s the mayor now.”

Gigi turned to see a short, balding man with a friendly smile. A petite woman stood beside him, her white hair soft and framing lovely, coal-dark eyes.

When the mayor moved to greet them, Jack turned on his official game face, glad-handing and schmoozing his way into the crowd. “Buongiorno. How are you?”

Gigi followed in his wake, shaking a few hands, and for several minutes everyone chatted. Understanding very little Italian, she kept to the basics — ciao and grazie — while she signed autographs.

Finally, it was time for her to play and the mayor, his wife, and their guests went inside. Gigi took up position at the pulpit. “I am honored to be here with you for this special occasion.”

Several people nodded, but most studied her with quizzical expressions. Their English was, apparently, no better than her Italian.

“Okay. Well.” She smiled at the mayor’s wife and repeated the words she’d been practicing, “Buon compleanno, Signora.”

Looking pleased, the lady thanked her and the mayor beamed.

Gigi set up her flute once more, then touched her grandfather’s ring through the bodice of her gown. It was perfect, wearing this old Roman ring, in this old Roman setting. She placed her lips against the cool metal of her instrument, enjoying the way her yellow diamond glittered in the candlelight. Her two rings. The past and the present, together. Perfect.

She blew softly. Musical notes lifted, filling the baptistery, and time passed without notice. Any thoughts about the location or audience were forgotten as she transitioned from one piece to the next. Feeling her way through each song, Gigi let the moment speak to her, telling her what to play.

When the last, passionate notes of “Time to Say Goodbye” echoed back to her, she felt a shiver of pleasure course down her spine. A man called out, “Magnifico!” and she looked up, surprised to see that sunset had faded into night. Except for the candlelit pulpit, the baptistery was dark, the frescoes obscured by shadow.

Gigi curtseyed to enthusiastic applause. Someone turned on the lights, and, taking this as their cue, the audience stood. Conversation filled the air. Waiters appeared with trays laden with flutes of champagne.

Gigi took a glass and everyone grew quiet. Was she supposed to make a toast? Drawing a blank at the appropriate Italian, she decided French was okay. “À votre santé,” she said, raising her glass.

“Sì, sì,” the mayor jumped in. “Salute!”

A little crush of guests formed around Gigi. Some heaped praise on her in charmingly broken English, but most spoke in breakneck Italian. The bubbles danced on her tongue as she sipped and nodded. Smiling broadly, the mayor and his wife approached, thanking her once more, then headed for the door.

Jack winked at her. “Great show, kiddo. I’ll be waiting outside.” He steered the last guests toward the exit.

“Thanks.” Gigi sighed, finally catching her breath. Jack knew she liked to be alone for a few moments after a performance.

She turned to put her flute away, recalling the piece she had intended to play as an encore: Chopin’s “Minute Waltz.”

“It would have been so perfect,” she said. “Ah, do it anyway.”

Grinning, she took up her instrument as the groundskeeper appeared at the door. “Just a sec,” she said, holding up her flute. Shutting her eyes, she placed it to her lips and blew, imagining the notes tumbling out, like musical popcorn. Time flew, the ending sparkled. There. Done. Perfect!

Gigi laughed and bowed to the air, then heard a distant cacophony, a really badly done version of the “Minute Waltz.” Another flutist? But where? The baptistery was empty. Probably someone outside, a bystander. Funny. She raised her flute and played along, appreciating the musician’s struggle, wanting to help. Finally, she heard pure tone, matching hers note for note. Yes, that’s it —

A whoosh of air, a faraway cry. Gigi’s eyes flew open to inexplicable images, wavy, ghostly shapes: men in togas, women in Grecian-style gowns. The scene flickered in and out, like a broken TV set, and a weird roar filled her ears, like a freight train inside her head. The room suddenly spun, the floor opened wide, and she grasped for the pulpit — but fell headlong into a whirlwind of stars.