"Stardust over Florence"

Present Day

Florence, Italy

The Piazza Signoria in central Florence was bustling, despite the fact that summer had turned to autumn. Most of the tourists had returned to their home countries.

An inky sky arched over the city like a canopy studded with shimmering lights. A sliver of moon floated above a sea of cloud.

Away from the crowd, the Professor was seated on a patio next to the Gucci museum. He was dressed in a crisp white shirt and black trousers, his dark hair carefully combed. A single curl had taken a liking to his forehead and sat stubbornly above his dark brows. His deep blue eyes were alight with desire and promise as he stared over the rim of his water glass.

The subject of his desire sat at his side, her hand resting casually on his thigh. He smirked a little, wondering if her position was simply an expression of her affection, as it usually was, or whether if it was a reaction to the attention they'd attracted from the other patrons.

This was not their first time in Florence and Gabriel prayed it would not be their last. They'd aged together, he and his beloved, but he rejected the designation of middle-aged, especially as applied to her. On her face he could see no trace of age, and her rich, chestnut hair was unmarked by gray.

Julianne returned his stare, her eyes brightening at the promise in his. She sipped her champagne, noting that the cool liquid was unable to diminish the heat of his gaze.

A short distance away an orchestra was assembled in front of the Palazzo Vecchio. A hush fell over the crowd as the conductor lifted his baton.

The music itself was not unexpected. The orchestra performed the drinking song from Verdi's La Traviata. As the first few notes echoed in the night air, a murmur rippled over the crowd. Soon voices lifted in song.

"Life is all for pleasure," the Professor quoted the lyrics. He rubbed his lower lip with the edge of his thumb as he appraised his beloved. "And what would your pleasure be?"

"The pleasure of your company." She smiled and finished her champagne.

The Professor took her empty glass and placed it aside next to his. His brow furrowed as he traced a finger across the lines of her palm. His blue eyes lifted to hers.

"I yield: I am defeated at this passage

more than a comic or a tragic poet

has ever been by a barrier in his theme;

for like the sun that strikes the frailest eyes,

so does the memory of her sweet smile

deprive me of the use of my own mind."

Julia recognized the words of Dante in praise of Beatrice and she felt her middle grow warm. She smoothed the furrow from the Professor's brow and lovingly caressed the strong lines of his jaw, her fingertips dancing across the hint of shadow.

"We both have happy memories. Too many to count." She cupped his jaw and her expression grew softer. "I say a prayer of thanks every day that we found each other and that you were my first and my only one."

Wordlessly, he lifted the hand he cradled to his lips. He kissed her palm as his gaze burned into hers.

Their unspoken exchange was interrupted by a burst of applause. The music had ceased and the conductor bowed to the audience before he faced the orchestra once again. He lifted his baton and they began a stirring rendition of Puccini's Nessun Dorma.

Gabriel leaned closer, and his lips brushed Julia's earlobe. "Nessun dorma. Tu pure, oh Principessa."

She shivered at his words.

He stood and extended his hand.

There was no question of her refusing his invitation. She'd accepted his hand when she was seventeen and since then, her heart had been his. But she took a moment to appreciate his form – his height and his shoulders, his handsome face and expressive blue eyes. And the deeply passionate and loyal heart hidden in his chest.

His expression grew solemn. "I'd wait forever, if it led me to you."

She took his hand and he helped her to her feet.

"No need to wait." She wound their fingers together and squeezed. "I don't even want to know where you're taking me. It's enough to know that I'm yours, Gabriel, and that you are mine."

He brought his arm around her waist, drew her close, and pressed his lips to her forehead. "I most certainly am yours, Julianne," he whispered. "And tonight, we're going to explore that."

Fingers entwined, they strolled through the piazza and along a series of streets until they approached the Gallery Hotel Art. The space itself was beautiful – a boutique hotel near the bank of the Arno. It was a favourite of the couple and held tremendous significance for them.

When they arrived at the door to their penthouse suite, Gabriel unlocked the door and stood aside, indicating that Julia should precede him.

She stepped inside and instantly fanned a hand over her mouth.

The room was illuminated only by a row of iron lanterns that stood like a company of soldiers, each lit with a single large candle. The row began a few steps inside the door and led across the large suite and out onto the terrace. Through the open doors Julia could see more lanterns placed artfully near a large banquette the size of a bed, which was dressed with white sheets and azure cushions. Curiously, a single red apple sat in the centre.

"Happy Anniversary," Gabriel said, his large hands resting on her shoulders.

She sagged against him and dropped her hand from her mouth. "Our anniversary is in January."

"Tonight we celebrate a different anniversary." He took her hand and kissed it before he walked toward the terrace.

As they passed the bedroom, Julia saw that it too was illuminated by flickering candles. The sight reminded her of the night she and Gabriel had made love for the first time, in that very room. He'd been a kind and attentive lover and had put a tremendous amount of thought into everything, including the candlelight. Julia's heart swelled at the recollection. She'd been tentative, wanting so desperately to please him. It had taken time for her to realize that their eros was entwined in such a way that Gabriel drew pleasure from the experience of arousing and satisfying her just as she drew pleasure from satisfying him.

She paused and Gabriel turned to nuzzle the skin below her ear. The scent of sandalwood and citrus wafted gently in the air, and it too was a pleasant reminder of their first time together. "Our first time was in December," she whispered, staring at the bed.

"Tonight is the anniversary of a different first." There was a seductive tone to his voice. He gave the bed a significant look. "Rest assured, our celebration will include a variety of pleasurable activities." He winked impishly before guiding her to the terrace.

From the Piazza Signoria, the strains of music could still be heard lifting heavenward. Julia stepped onto the terrace and surveyed the incredible view. In the distance, she could see the great tower of the Palazzo Vecchio, as well as Brunelleschi's dome.

Gabriel's hand rested at the small of her back and his fingers drifted over the silk of her dress.

She embraced him and wrapped her arms around his waist. "I love that you flew me all the way to Florence so we could celebrate together. But I want you to remember I also love our normal life, with all our responsibilities and busy schedules. I couldn't ask for a better partner."

"Thank you." His voice grew husky. "We need time for ourselves without interruptions, time to reflect on our shared history, and time for eros."

The tone of his voice as it laved across the last word caused Julia's skin to pebble. The Professor was practiced in the erotic arts. She had been his willing student for a time, but for several years there had been neither student nor teacher, just partners.

He picked up the apple from the centre of the banquette and held it out to her. His face wore a serious expression.

All at once, she realized which anniversary they were celebrating. She took the apple and bit into it, and the sweet tartness spread over her tongue.

She returned the apple to him and he, too, took a bite.

"Tonight's the anniversary of our night in the orchard." She covered his heart with her hand. That night had been their first together and for her, it had been a revelation of a very different side of Gabriel. He'd finally seen her and he'd given her a romantic evening nestled against his side.

Gabriel placed the apple on an obliging side table. "I thought about celebrating in the orchard, but we wouldn't have had any privacy." He pursed his lips.

Julia traced a finger across his frown. "Even in the dark of night?"

"Especially in the dark of night." He nipped at her finger and sat on the side of the banquette, removing his shoes. "Too many damn relatives wandering around."

She laughed and sat next to him. "Some of those relatives have early bedtimes."

"Those aren't the relatives I'm worried about." Gabriel crouched in front of her and caressed her ankles. He appraised her very high red-soled heels for a moment and removed them slowly. He set them aside with an almost wistful look.

Julia wiggled her bare toes. "I can keep my heels on, Professor."

"Later," he rasped, running the backs of his fingers up and down her legs.

"Seeing you there, watching you remove my shoes, reminds me of our first time together." She pushed the curl away from his forehead. "You were so kind."

"You inspired me." His tone was earnest, as were his eyes. "I tried to show you I wanted you forever and not just for one night."

She leaned forward and kissed him, drawing his lower lip into her mouth. His hands moved into her hair, caressing her gently.

Gabriel kissed with his heart, as it had always been when he kissed her. He was never rushed or careless, but always single-minded in his focus, which was on her and on what they could create together.

Julia returned his fire, tasting his mouth until he broke their connection so he could sit beside her.

He drew her down onto the banquette so they were both situated on their backs, looking up at the stars that were spread like a banner over them. The stars seemed to wink at their love.

He laced his fingers with hers and placed their connection over his heart. He turned to face her. "Are you cold?"

She shook her head. "Not after that kiss."

A smile spread over his handsome face. "We have a blanket in case you get cold."

Julia looked down at the foot of the banquette and saw a familiar looking wool blanket.

"You brought our blanket? All the way from Selinsgrove?" She sounded incredulous.

"Of course. But the apple is Italian."

She laughed and rested the side of her head against his shoulder, her brown hair spilling over his chest.

"Have you ever lain next to a boy and looked up at the stars?" he whispered.

She nodded. "It was one of the most magical nights of my life. But I was in love with him before that."

"And he?"

"It took him a while to recognize me."

"But when he did?"

"He loved me enough to go through hell to protect me."

Gabriel winced and looked up at the sky.

Julia felt his heart skip a beat. "Our lives haven't always been easy. But we are still here, still together."

He turned his head. "Tell me you love me."

"Oh, Gabriel." She kissed him softly. "I love you. I loved you before you knew my name. When I fell in love with you, I thought I couldn't love you more. But every year, my love for you grows."

"I've never loved anyone else," he whispered. "You define love for me.

"That's why I wanted to start our celebration where we began, under the stars. My love for you is constant, Julianne, but it has deepened over time. I draw inspiration from the stars, knowing that our love won't die."

Julia's eyes began to sting and she blinked rapidly.

"Don't cry, my sweet, sweet girl." He pressed a kiss to her hair. "This is a night for love and joy."

She sniffled. "You're thinking of Richard and Grace."

"I can't help it. I look at them and I look at us and …" His voice trailed off and he sighed deeply.

Julia released his hand and rolled to her side. She placed her other hand over his heart. She studied his expression for a moment.

"I'm afraid," she confessed. "I'm afraid of losing you. But I know if I give in to that fear, it will paralyze me. I won't be able to look at you or enjoy your company or live in the moment."

Gabriel nodded minutely.

She leaned over him, so their foreheads were almost touching. "Love is risk. Richard knew that and Grace knew it too. To love someone is to risk. But I would rather love you and have a short time together than to have never loved you at all.

"I choose you. I choose to love you knowing that at any moment I could lose you or you could lose me. We don't get to write our own endings. All we can do is write the chapters that lead up to them."

Gabriel smiled at her sadly. "Sometimes I rue the day you decided to study Dante."

"If I could do it all over I would still choose Dante, even though I know how the first part of their story ends."

"We've had more time than them," he observed, pulling her so she lay on top of him.

She looked down, her hair falling forward. "So instead of fearing that we'll be like Grace and Richard, we should be thankful that we've had more time than Dante and Beatrice."

"Yes, Professor." He flashed her a winning smile. "I need to enrol in one of your courses."

"Of course you do. I'm an excellent teacher."

"Teach me, Beatrice." He traced the arc of her cheekbone with his thumb. "And I will be your willing student."

"I can't teach you to love, Gabriel. Your capacity for love is very great. But I can draw you out of your melancholy or at least sit with you until it passes."

"I'd far rather you did something else to end the melancholy." He lifted his eyebrows expectantly.

She laughed and the sound echoed around them.

"I thought you'd never ask." She arched over him and fused their lips, bringing her chest flush against him.

As Gabriel returned her embrace his hands slid over the Santorini blue silk of her dress, coming to rest on her backside. He pressed her lower body against his.

Julia kissed him with her heart, as well as her body, trying to convey her adoration and admiration. And when she lifted her head, almost breathless, she looked down in wonder at the sparks in his heated gaze.

Without hesitation, she took his hand and pulled him toward the bedroom.

Fin.

-x-x-x-x-

Author's Note: Thank you to Jennde for beta-ing this piece and for being my beta years ago when I posted regularly to this site. Thank you readers for reading and for your encouragement and support.

The Gabriel Series has been optioned for film: /film-series-news/

Production is by PassionFlix - a company that values readers and authors. They vow to stick close to the novels and they welcome reader engagement and author involvement. The films will be shot on location in Toronto and Italy, beginning Fall 2019.

UPDATE - Many readers have asked for more of this future take. I've decided to continue the story and contribute the second-half of it to a special fundraising compilation being organized by members of several Fandoms. I've posted the details of the fundraiser on my FF profile. Click on the Bio to see the information and links.

Thank you for reading.

Peace, SR.