The idea of starting A New Life has sometimes sounded quite tempting. . . only to the heroine of this novel, it’s an ordeal. She has just been acquitted of murder and now needs to build up a new life in Italy, as a secretary in a hotel. Never mind that she doesn’t speak Italian. Never mind that she’s not a secretary but an experienced business-woman. Never mind that Italy comes in a totally different shape to what she expected . . .
“No, I didn’t kill him.” Anne frowned at the sound of her voice. If only she knew how to say it in Italian.
Then again, no. Anne shook her head.
She didn’t have to know it.
Because nobody would ask.
She had to remember it was all in the past.
The loudspeaker spat out some Italian sentences. Anne tilted her head but didn’t understand a word. Thank God the stewardess continued in English. “Ladies and Gentlemen, we’re now approaching Florence. Please fasten your seat belts, and put your seats in an upright position.”
Florence! Anne swallowed. How often had she dreamed of Florence. How often had she asked her mother to show her the pictures yet again, to speak of the light, of the beauty, of the Italian sun. Anne closed her eyes. She could hear her mother even now, her musical voice and her explosive laughter.
She would never have believed that one day, she would be reluctant to see Florence.
Anne clenched her teeth. She had to stop thinking about it. She had to concentrate on a dream come true, no matter the circumstances, no matter it felt like a nightmare.
She angled her head to get a better view of Florence through the window, but the plane was surrounded by clouds. It looked as if they were cutting through a thick layer of gray cotton wool.
Almost there. Anne’s eyes burned as she fought back a wave of fear. How she wished she could go back to Seattle. But that wasn’t an option.
You’ll be fine, she told herself and stared at the clouds. The red lights from the wings reflected in the towering gray masses before they cut into them. For an instant, Anne closed her eyes. Even if the whole of Europe should turn out to be gray, it had one big advantage.
Nobody knew her here.
That counted more than everything. She nodded to herself. Giorgio had promised she could avoid all Americans at the hotel. Maybe, for once, Giorgio had told the truth.
She sighed. How she wished she didn’t depend on their weak family connection.
The plane dipped lower, and they emerged from the gray cotton wool. Anne’s eyes widened. How close to the ground they were already! For an instant, she could make out a few scattered buildings before the rain streamed along the little oval window in horizontal lines and blurred her view. She might see more if she took off her huge sun-glasses, bought especially to hide as much of her face as possible, but she had kept them on all the way because they made her feel anonymous. She would soon have to face the world without them. All too soon.
Half an hour later, she stared at a huge sign on the wall while waiting for her giant suitcase to arrive on the belt.
Benvenuto da Firenze. Welcome to Florence. Willkommen in Florenz. Bienvenue à Florence. The words reverberated through her. Welcome. Would she be welcome? She doubted it. Anne grabbed her elephant suitcase, hefted it off the belt and dragged it to the exit. Her heart beat hard against her ribs.
The airport was so small, you could walk in ten minutes from one end to the other. It had just one floor and a flat roof, and if you wanted to get lost here, you had a job to do. Somehow, the small size made it sympathetic and manageable. Then again, you could be seen and recognized in no time at all. Anne swallowed, hurried through the glass doors, and took a deep breath. Italy smelled of rain and dust.
It wouldn’t take long to get to the ‘centro storico’, the old city center. Half an hour or so, the guy at the travel agency had said. Anne’s throat felt parched. She would have to face the manager of the Garibaldi Hotel soon. Peter Grant.
Giorgio had told her Mr. Grant would not be a problem. He’d promised to discuss everything with him. He’d promised Mr. Grant would welcome her with open arms. He’d also promised Mr. Grant would be discreet.
Anne bent her head to avoid the worst of the rain and turned to her left, following a sign that said ‘Taxi’. The rain dropped into the small of her neck and ran down her back with chilly fingers. Until yesterday, her long hair had kept her warm. How she missed its familiar weight; how vulnerable she felt. What a stupid idea to cut her long hair only because it would make her look different from the girl on trial. Anne huddled deeper into her coat, but the wind cut through it and made her shudder. She splashed into a puddle, and immediately, water seeped through the seams of her shoes. Darn. You’re so silly. Take off your sunglasses now. Do.
But no. Not yet.
Her thoughts turned back to Peter Grant. She wasn’t so sure about the open-armed-welcome. From all she’d learned the last months, few people welcomed you with open arms if you’ve just been released from custody, and on a murder charge at that.
She bit her lips and stopped next to the first taxi in line. With a forced smile, she bent forward and looked through a dirty window. The taxi driver opened it, his face impassive. Anne summoned up the sentence she had learned by heart. “Nel centro storico?”
The taxi driver nodded. He scowled at her huge suitcase, then at the pouring rain, grunted something she didn’t understand and heaved himself out of his Renault.
For an instant, Anne wanted to say she was sorry to be a bother, then she shook herself. She wasn’t responsible for the weather. Where had all her self esteem gone? Half a year ago, she would have made a joke about the rain. Now every little unpleasantness went straight to the core. She pressed her lips together and dived into the back of the taxi. It smelled of stale cigarettes.
When the Renault started to drive with a rattle that told her the exhaust tube wasn’t going to last much longer, she stared out of the window. Blinded by the rain and her sun-glasses, she didn’t see much. A few trees, thin, straggling. Some low houses, with the typical roofs made of four equal triangular pieces, slanted to meet at the tip. Shutters with peeling paint, closed to keep out the sun that was nowhere to be seen and hard to imagine. Where was the Florence her mother had loved?
Anne shook herself. She had to think positive. She had to take back her life, make it into something good, something clean. She sighed. Would it ever become possible to forget she’d been imprisoned on a murder charge? Would she be able to forget the accusing stare of Alec’s friends, and let’s face it, her own, who believed she had tampered with his car? Would life ever turn back into something sane, something to have confidence in?
She’d been innocent. It hadn’t helped.
The houses got higher, and the streets narrowed until Anne wondered if she could open the door of the taxi without hitting it against a wall. It got darker by the minute. The rain pelted onto the roof with angry blows, deafening her. She felt as if she was sitting inside a clammy tin box. Anne hunched up her shoulders and curled her cold toes.
When the taxi stopped, and her amiable driver indicated with a move of the head that she had reached her destiny, she fumbled out some unfamiliar Euro notes and pressed them into his hands. His fingers were red, like sausages. The sausages disappeared in a black zip-bag and reappeared with some change.
“Grazie.” Anne’s voice trembled.
With a sigh, the taxi driver heaved himself out and went to the back of the car.
Anne clutched her handbag hard. Now. Her new life was about to begin.
Get out, she told herself. Don’t be a coward.
But her legs were frozen stiff. She was unable to move.
Oh, it would be so nice if she could find a mouse hole somewhere. Just a little mouse hole, well hidden; that would do.
Peter Grant pulled up the collar of his raincoat and sped past the Dome without a single glance at its marble beauty. He swerved by a Vespa, jumped across a puddle and finally stormed into the Da Marco bar on via de’ Tosinghi. After the call from Garibaldi, he had felt the need to leave his office immediately, to get some fresh air and a change of walls, but for once, the familiar smell of coffee and fresh bread failed to charm him. With an effort, he smiled. “Buongiorno, Marco.”
Marco waved his blue checkered dishcloth, finished polishing the glass in his hands and put it down with practiced care. It clinked on the glass top, only audible because the bar was still empty.
“Peetarrr.” He smiled across his gleaming glass counter that allowed a glimpse of crisp pannini bread and sweet dolci. “Come vai?”
Peter’s reply came automatic. “Tutto a posto. All is well.” Which was a lie. Nothing was well, nothing at all, but he couldn’t very well tell Marco so, who had once declared him to be the only cheerful English guy he had ever met.
Peter shifted on his wooden bar stool and leaned his back against the wall painted in faded orange. The smell of Marco’s panninis made his mouth water. He ordered an expresso and a pannini with prosciutto. “Henry not here yet?”
Marco shook his head without looking up from the hissing espresso machine. “Enrique will come soon.” He slipped the expresso in front of him.
Peter immediately tossed it back. When he looked up, he spotted Henry through the glass front of the bar. His cream-colored raincoat moved like a swift cloud through the rain. With him, the smell of exhaust came into the bar.
Marco shivered. “Che tempo brutto!”
Yes, the weather is awful. Peter sighed. But it’ll go away, unlike the news I got this morning.
Henry smiled at them both, took off his raincoat, shook out its folds one by one, then hung it on the curlicued brass hook Marco had fixed on the wall just for him. He bent across the glass display and gave Marco his order, then came over to Peter. Just as he seated himself, Marco brought Peter’s sandwich and served Henry his usual, a salad with bacon strips.
Henry pushed the plate away until it stood at a neat angle in front of him, padded down his blond hair that didn’t need any padding, slanted a glance at Peter and said, “Everything all right?”
Peter shook his head. “No.”
Henry speared a piece of tomato and lifted his fork. “Is it Maria?”
Peter stared at him. “Maria? Who’s Ma . . .?” He stopped and choked. “Oh. Maria. Why on earth do you think it’s Maria?”
Henry put the tomato into his mouth and chewed. “The last time you looked like that, Maria was the reason.”
Peter laughed without mirth. “It’s been ages . . . I believe I’ve last heard from Maria a year ago.” He took a bite off his pannini and smiled a bit. “And I sure don’t complain.” The smoky taste of the prosciutto filled his mouth but failed to give him a feeling of satisfaction.
Henry nodded and cut the salad into rectangular pieces. “So it’s Garibaldi?”
Peter clenched his teeth. “Lo stronzo.” He hissed out the word.
Henry threw a look at Marco who had moved to the other end of the counter to greet a new customer. “Be careful.”
“Oh, you can trust Marco.” Peter bit off another piece of his pannini as if he wanted to tear it apart.
Henry nodded. “Yeah. But still, I wouldn’t run around and call my employer an asshole. Particularly not if it’s someone like Garibaldi.”
“But he is one.” Peter narrowed his eyes.
“I know. What did he do this time to put you in such a fury?”
Peter took a deep breath. “You remember Angela? My secretary who worked half time?”
“I thought she’d left?”
“Yeah.” Peter finished his pannini and wiped his fingers on the white paper napkin. “She left a month ago, and I’ve been badgering Garibaldi ever since to allow me to employ a full-time secretary.”
Henry winced. “Oh, no. Don’t tell me you’ve been going without a secretary for a full month?”
Peter grinned. “It’s pandemonium.”
“I can imagine. Why don’t you find a half-time secretary until Garibaldi agrees?”
“Because as soon as I have one, he’ll think it’s fine and will stop doing what little he might have done. Besides, it wouldn’t be fair to her, would it?”
Henry took a sip of his coffee and grinned. “And now he said since you seem to manage nicely, you can do without one altogether?”
“Worse? What can be worse?”
“He’s sending me his niece.”
The hiss of the espresso machine almost drowned his last words.
Henry stared. “Did you say his niece?”
“Jesus.” Henry arranged his knife and fork in perfect parallels on his empty plate and pushed it away.
Peter looked up. “That all you say?”
Henry blinked. “You’ll have to be darn careful. First of all, you have to stop calling him Stronzo all the time.”
Peter shrugged. “If that was all, I’d be fine.”
Henry waved at Marco. “Un Grappa, per favore, Marco.” Then he turned back to Peter. “What do you mean, that’s not all?”
“He doesn’t have a niece.”
Marco arrived and placed the tiny glass with Grappa in front of Henry who pushed it to Peter.
Peter eyed it for an instant, then tossed it off. “Thanks.”
Henry frowned. “Now let’s start again, please; you’ve lost me completely. You say Garibaldi foists a niece upon you, a niece he doesn’t have?”
Peter shrugged. “Lo stro… Garibaldi called this morning, said he had wonderful news; he has found a secretary for me. She’ll work full time. What’s more, she’s already on her way and will arrive tonight.” He drew his hand through his hair. “And while I’m still collecting my thoughts to ask if she has ever worked in a hotel, if she has any references, not to mention that I would like to have a say in the matter as well, he says she’s his niece!” He spat out the word. “When I know perfectly well he has neither brothers nor sisters, so he can’t have a niece, not in a million years!”
“So who do you think she is?” Henry opened his eyes wide.
“She’s one of his floozies, of course. Tall, blond, and so stupid you start to eat your desk in desperation if you have to talk to them for five minutes on end. They’re all like that.” He shrugged. “I guess he got bored with her, for once finds it difficult to shake her off, so he offers her a job in Florence.” He changed his voice to a high-pitched sing-song, “Wonderful city, my dear, you’ll work in a fabulous four star hotel, oh, so exclusive, a gorgeous historical Palazzo,” Peter drew his hand through his hair again and returned to his normal voice. “And I don’t even know if she speaks Italian, for God’s sake!” He beat the top of the bar with his fist.
Henry shook his head. “He wouldn’t send you a secretary who doesn’t speak Italian, Peter. Even Garibaldi can’t do that.”
Peter lifted his eyebrows. “Oh, wouldn’t he?” He grabbed a tooth pick from a white porcelain holder next to his elbow and started to turn it around in his fingers. “Those bimbos are barely able to speak their mother language, let alone any other!”
“Maybe she’s Italian,” Henry said.
Peter shook his head. “No way.” He twiddled the tooth pick in his fingers. “Not with a name like that.” He stared at the glossy table top in front of him.
“Come on, don’t keep me in suspense.” Henry nudged his arm. “What’s her name?”
Peter looked at his friend and drew a grimace. “Elizabeth Tiffany Mary Anne Smith.” He drew out each word. “Doesn’t sound Italian to me.” The tooth pick snapped in two between his fingers. “And she’s never worked in a hotel in all her life.”
Beate Boeker is a marketing manager by day and a writer by night. If you mix Latin and German, Beate Boeker literally translates as Happy Books . . . and with a name like that, what else could she do but write romances and entertaining mysteries? Her books are well-known for their touches of humor and mischief. She has published several romances with Avalon Books – and two of them have already been chosen as finalists in writing contests. You can also find several “feel-good” e-books by Beate online. Check out her website to learn more: http://www.happybooks.de