Her doorbell rang, three quick pulses, just after six in the evening.
“Does this mean I have to put pants on?” Paolo asked, lifting his head from her lap.
She nodded. “You’d want your sister’s boyfriend to be wearing pants, wouldn’t you?” she replied, standing up from the couch. She kicked some wrapping paper under the coffee table.
“Good point,” he said.
Three more rings on the bell. “Coming,” she called down the hall. She opened the door to her brother. Michele was the middle child, a curious combination of Ricci’s business acumen and Francesca’s artistic side. He worked as a consultant in Hong Kong, a transfer he had resisted five years ago. As the managing partner at his firm, he now claimed he’d never move back to Italy, he’d fallen in love with Asia so much. Or, Francesca gathered, with his girlfriend, a curator at Gagosian Hong Kong.
“Esselunga was open,” he said, holding up two grocery bags. She hugged him around his neck and kissed both his cheeks.
“Come in, come in! You’re so cold,” she said, pinching his red earlobes.
“You kept me waiting outside,” he countered. “Is Paolo here?”
“He is,” she said, and as if on cue, her bedroom door opened and he walked out, wearing jeans and a Nike t-shirt. He jogged down the hall to greet her brother.
“Good to see you, man. Buon Natale,” he said, clapping an arm around Michele’s shoulders.
“I hope you like Vietnamese,” Michele said shyly.
“Love it,” Paolo answered.
“You’re kidding, right?” Francesca asked. They both turned towards her. “You really know how to cook Vietnamese?” she asked Michele.
“It’s just a fish stew,” he said. “We went on holiday last year and spent a week at a resort with a cooking school.”
She raised an eyebrow. “You guys are so cultured,” she said.
“Min had wanted to do it for a while. She sends her love, by the way. Asked if you were going to come out for work any time soon.” He turned to Paolo. “Min’s my girlfriend,” he explained. “We should probably put this fish in the fridge,” he continued, carrying the groceries into her kitchen. He shrugged off his Loro Piana jacket and hung it over the back of a chair.
Francesca helped him unpack the bags, while Paolo stood in the doorway watching them. “You know her well,” he remarked as Michele unpacked a carton of vegetable stock and a bottle of fish sauce.
“What? Oh, you mean that she doesn’t have anything in her kitchen,” Michele said, opening the refrigerator. He shook a half-empty carton of milk. “She’s always been like this.”
“I’m right here,” Francesca interjected. Michele tossed a lime at her.