Once Upon a Time (1)
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Allegra was running late.

Ever since her stepmother had taken over the company, it had been harder and harder to ignore the siren call of the snooze button on Monday mornings.

And on this first Monday after Christmas, when the temperature was hovering just above freezing and the skies were the same color as the concrete sidewalks, Allegra had succumbed to temptation and rolled over when she should have rolled out. By the time she finally—reluctantly—left her warm bed, she’d paid for her sloth with a series of delays that had a cascade effect on her daily routine.

First she’d tripped over the antique wooden shoemaker’s last she used as a doorstop. Then, while inhaling her breakfast of peanut butter toast, she’d stepped on her cat’s tail and spilled coffee on the floor, which Gus-Gus immediately ran over to lap up, tracking little coffee footprints all across the tile.

Rushing back to the nook she called her bedroom, Allegra managed to trip over a box of Christmas tree ornaments she was planning to take down to the tiny storage room she rented in the basement of her apartment building.

Resisting the urge to look at the damage, she’d thrown on a pair of skinny black jeans and a soft dove gray sweater. She noticed there was a tiny hole near one cuff that looked like a moth might have been nibbling at it but decided it was too late to change into something else.

Allegra was half out the door before she remembered she was meeting with a buyer at eleven. With a sigh, she rummaged through the little hatbox where she kept her scarves and pulled out a vintage Nicole Miller silk square she’d snagged at a thrift store. Looping it around her neck, she hoped the effect was an approximation of French Girl style and didn’t just look like she’d tied it on to hide a stain on the sweater.

At the door she paused long enough to run a lint brush over her jeans because she already felt like an unmade bed and the last thing she needed was to walk into a meeting with cat hair on her clothes. She knew her assistant, an elegant Frenchwoman whose style remained firmly Parisian even after two decades in Chicago, would not approve of her ensemble, but it would have to do.

And at least she’d be warm, Allegra reflected. Chicago in December was not for the faint-hearted.

Her stepmother, though she’d never admit it, was going through menopause and kept the offices at a glacial temperature to accommodate her hot flashes. Since the office had central heating, everyone else had to suffer. Margot in the billing department had even bought a space heater for her cubicle and pointedly donning her coat whenever she had business that took her past Mariella’s office. The little display of disapproval was lost on her stepmother, Allegra knew. She wasn’t really a people person and so long as she was comfortable, all was well.


It was nearly nine-thirty before Allegra finally walked through the rustic metal-bound doors of the historic building that housed the House of Zangari, purveyor of luxury leather goods. The office was next door to the factory where the company’s shoes and handbags were produced, connected by an underground tunnel that made it convenient going back and forth in the frigid Chicago winter. She had grown up playing hide and seek in the tunnel and knew its twists and turns well enough she could negotiate them blindfolded if she ever had to.

Allegra’s grandfather had always told her the tunnel had been built during Prohibition and used by gangsters to store the booze they imported from Canada. She didn’t know if that was true or not, but she knew her law-abiding grandfather Dom had secretly relished the thought of being connected in a small way to the city’s outlaw past. A photo of her great-grandfather Giuseppe “Joe” Zangari with his most famous customer, Al Capone, still had pride of place in the factory foreman’s office. “He was a natty dresser,” Dom Zangari had told her. “And he knew quality when he saw it.” Dom had died when Allegra was just a little girl, but he’d been such an outsize personality that she still remembered him. He had always smelled of Sen-Sen, a licorice-flavored breath mint that came in little boxes with a hole in them so the tiny square gray candies could come out one at a time. Grampa Joe had always shared the sweets with her, but privately, Allegra thought they tasted nasty and only ate them to be polite.


Jeri Johnson waved a pink slip at Allegra as she approached the receptionist desk. “The guy from Thalhimers called. He flew back to Richmond last night so he wouldn’t get caught in the storm. He said he’d call you this week.”’

“Okay,” Allegra said, taking the slip. “Thanks.” She didn’t know whether to be annoyed or relieved at the last-minute cancellation with the department store buyer. She settled for relieved, but she was starting to get a headache behind her right eye and the temperature in the office wasn’t helping; she could feel her mood plummeting to match the reading on the thermometer.

Mondays, she thought.

As she passed by the conference room, she noticed the door was open.

Did I miss a staff meeting? she wondered and peeked in.

To her surprise it was empty except for a hijab-wearing woman she didn’t recognize who was cutting a pattern free-hand from a length of material laid out on the twelve-foot cherry-wood conference table.

“Excuse me,” she said.

Startled, the woman whirled around, clutching her shears like a weapon, her doe eyes wide with fear.

What on earth?” Allegra thought, realizing the woman couldn’t be much past her teen years. “Hello,” she said. “I didn’t mean to scare you.”

The girl didn’t seem reassured. “Sina,” she said with an anxious look.

Okay, Allegra thought. “Sorry to have disturbed you,” she said as she backed out of the room.

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