A Shadow of Guilt - By Abby Green


HE SHOULD BE in that coffin, and not his irrepressible best friend.

Giacomo Corretti stood in the shadow of the tall pine tree and watched as the coffin was lowered into the ground just a few feet away from where he was effectively hidden. The tight ball of ice firmly lodged in his gut was slowly spreading out to every extremity. He welcomed this even as he castigated himself for being a coward.

The small group of people around the coffin started to move, the priest’s final words of blessing lingering on the warm spring air along with the pungent scent of incense. It shouldn’t be warm, Gio suddenly realised, it shouldn’t be spring. The sea shouldn’t be twinkling benignly under a cerulean sky. He desperately wanted apocalyptic clouds to roll in off stormy waters, for everything to darken and for thunder and lightning to lash this place. To lash him to pieces.

He could hear the heartbreaking sound of Mario’s mother sobbing as she leant on her aged husband. The sound cut him in two. Gio would never have merited this outpouring of grief. The realisation was stark but brought with it no sense of self-pity.

In contrast, beside them with a stoically straight back stood their tall and narrow-shouldered daughter, Valentina. Her long chestnut hair was tied back in a plait and on her head was a black scarf. The ill-fitting black jacket and skirt she wore hinted at the coltish seventeen-year-old body underneath.

She didn’t have to look around for Gio to know every line on her face with instant recall. Pale olive skin as soft as a rose petal. The lush curve of her mouth and lips which more than hinted at a burgeoning womanly sensuality. She had the most extraordinarily coloured eyes, golden brown like amber.

Tiger’s eyes.

He could picture them flashing now with mock anger and a little bit of very real anger and fear whenever she’d caught her beloved older brother and Gio flirting with the danger they had loved so much.

As if the intensity of his gaze and thoughts had touched her, Valentina Ferranti turned around and pinpointed the exact spot where Gio stood, those almond-shaped eyes narrowing on him.

It was too late, he couldn’t run. She turned fully and looked at him for a long moment. She was pale and her beautiful face was puffy from crying. Her eyes were shadowed and grief-stricken in a way that no one should ever have to deal with before their time. He had done that to her. He had caused this irreparable damage.

His careless words came back to him from that night: ‘Don’t worry, I’ll have him back to his books before midnight just like Cinderella….’

Valentina’s desolation reached out to touch Gio and mock him. And then she was stalking towards him with long slim legs; her hands were curled to fists much like his, by her sides. Her face was contorted with the mad anger of grief.

She stopped just inches away. So close that he could smell her sweet fresh scent. It was incongruous in the midst of such misery.

‘You are not welcome here, Corretti.’ Her voice was rough and husky from crying and Gio’s insides contracted so much he wondered how he stayed conscious when he couldn’t breathe. But he was breathing and he marvelled at the human body’s instinct to survive, no matter what.

He took a breath. ‘I …’ He stopped when the familiar tightening of his vocal chords warned of humiliation to come but he ignored it. ‘I … know.’

The fact that he hadn’t stumbled over those completely ineffectual words came as small comfort. Mario, her brother and his friend, had been the one who had patiently helped Gio to overcome his chronic stutter which had lasted well into his early teens.

At twenty-two now, the sting of years of humiliation was still like a scar branding his skin. And yet in this moment, he longed to feel that humiliation again. So that he could be subjected to Valentina’s cruel laugh and ridicule. Except … she wouldn’t do that, she had never done that. She’d always been sweet and shy, and when he had stuttered in front of her she’d never used it as a tool to hurt, as almost everyone else had. Especially his family.

Suddenly Valentina lashed out, taking him by surprise. Her small fist connected with Gio’s chest with enough force to send him staggering backwards. Her voice throbbed with pain, ‘He was everything to us and thanks to you he’s gone. He was going