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First pages

Prologue

Let these describe the undescribable.

GEORGE NOEL GORDON, LORD BYRON,

Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage

 

August 1961

Venice, Italy

 

The sunlight reflecting off the water created dappled patterns of dancing light on the ceiling as I sat up in bed and stretched my arms wide. Somewhere out on the canal beyond the window of my hotel room, a gondolier sang a plaintive melody in a minor key. I could only pick out the odd word or two of its lyrics; my very limited Italian, painstakingly gleaned from a phrasebook, was unequal to the task of translation. After all, lyricists in this, the most romantic city in the world, rarely waxed rhapsodic over directions to the Piazza San Marco or the time of the next train to Rome.

Nearer at hand, the hum of an electric razor (a more mundane sound, but one no less romantic, at least to my mind) penetrated the closed bathroom door. Smiling to myself, I threw off the covers and slid my arms into the sleeves of my blue satin robe.

“I’ll be outside,” I called in the general direction of the bathroom, then pushed aside the curtain, opened the French window, and stepped out onto the tiny balcony overlooking the canal. I leaned forward and propped my elbows on the ornate wrought iron railing, admiring the play of sunlight over the unfamiliar band of gold adorning the third finger of my left hand.

The dark prow of the gondola sliced through the water beneath my balcony, its sleek curve resembling the neck of a great black swan. At that moment the sun disappeared behind a cloud, and I shivered, even though the summer morning was already growing uncomfortably warm. The melancholy song of the gondolier began to fade, and I found myself hoping that, by the time my husband and I left Venice in a week’s time, the haunting music and the lapping of water against the side of graceful old buildings would have once more become the quintessential Venetian experience, and no longer the stuff of nightmare . . .

1

Travel, in the younger sort, is a part of education;

in the elder, a part of experience.

FRANCIS BACON, Of Travel

 

Three months earlier

En route to Barcelona, Spain

 

When a boy would rather be at the bottom of the sea than on dry land getting married to the girl he claims to love, something is terribly wrong somewhere.”

Those pearls of wisdom, dropped at an altitude of twenty thousand feet, were my first inkling that the purpose of this trip was not, as I had been assured, that of helping my poor widowed aunt (her description, not mine) cope with the loss of her husband, my Uncle Herman, some fifteen months earlier. Unfortunately, it was too late to do anything about it now, as our Boeing 707 would soon be making its final approach into Barcelona with its one hundred and fifty passengers, among whom were my Aunt Maggie and me.

“Gene does love me,” I insisted. “Besides, he’s on a submarine, not at the bottom of the sea.”

Maggie waved one manicured hand in a gesture of dismissal. “He might as well be, as far as you’re concerned.” She took my hand and squeezed it so tightly that her red-lacquered nails cut into the skin. “Robin, honey, it’s not that I don’t like Gene. I just hate to see you waste the best years of your life waiting for him to be ready to settle down. Some men never do, you know.”

I turned away and fixed my eyes on the window, staring down in apparent fascination at the red clay tile rooftops rising to meet us. In truth, I couldn’t think of anything to say to Aunt Maggie; after all, she hadn’t said anything that I hadn’t thought, however reluctantly, myself. Gene and I had been dating since our sophomore year of high school, and the only question regarding our eventual marriage had not been ‘if,’ but ‘when.’ After graduation, he had joined the Navy, and I, having nothing better to do, had enrolled in college. I had been rather puzzled at the time by my mother’s insistence that I further my education; after all, in Mother’s view, there were only three reasons for higher education for a female. A girl could go to secretarial school and eventually marry her boss, or she could go to a teacher’s college and eventually marry the principal, or she could go to nursing school and eventually marry a doctor. Since I’d always been good at English, I chose the teaching route. Mother was disappointed—I suspect she’d hoped to have a doctor in the family—but to my mind, it made very little difference: by the time I earned my diploma, Gene’s four-year commitment to the Navy would be complete, and we would marry and settle down to raise a family, without my ever having seen the inside of a classroom, at least not from the teacher’s side of the desk.

But Gene had re-enlisted within a month of my graduation from college, and I’d spent the last two years attempting to explain split infinitives, dangling participles, and predicate nominatives to uninterested eighth-graders. And now, halfway through his second tour of duty, I’d learned that Gene had requested—requested!—an assign-ment aboard a submarine, delaying our wedding once again so that he could see the world before settling down to a life of domestic bliss. (“How much does he think he’ll be able to see from a submarine?” had been Aunt Maggie’s not unreasonable response to this newest postponement.)

“Besides,” she continued now, releasing my hand with a final pat, “if he wants to see something of the world first, why shouldn’t you do the same? After all, what’s sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander.”

“We’re not barnyard fowl,” I protested.

A sudden jolt punctuated my objection, and I realized with some surprise that the back wheels of the plane had touched down. I was in Europe now—Spain, to be exact—but although the big adventure promised by Aunt Maggie might be said to have begun, I didn’t feel any different. The bumpy taxiway to the terminal looked very much like the one we’d left back in the States, and the hard lump of pain at what I couldn’t help thinking of as Gene’s betrayal was still firmly stuck somewhere between my throat and my chest. The plane finally lurched to a stop before the terminal, and Aunt Maggie dragged her patent leather handbag from its resting place at her feet, rummaged inside for her compact, and began to powder her nose.

“Look at it this way,” she said. “If your Gene is going to make a career of the Navy, he’ll want a wife who can hold her own with the other well-traveled Navy wives. In that case, you’ll want to be a credit to him.”

Yes, I decided resolutely as I unbuckled my seat belt, rose stiffly from the seat I’d occupied for the last eight hours, and attempted (without visible success) to smooth the creases from my white poplin sailor dress. I was going to have a lovely time, and the next time Gene saw me, I would no longer be a small-town junior high English teacher, but a cosmopolitan woman with a smattering of Spanish, French, Greek, and Italian at my command. He would take one look at the sophisticated creature I had become, and thank his lucky stars that no other man had snapped me up while he’d been dragging his feet. I snatched my round beribboned hat from the rack above me and plunked it firmly onto my head (the better to hide my slightly mussed ash-blond hair), then picked up my purse and followed Aunt Maggie down the aisle toward the front of the plane.

I emerged blinking into the bright sunshine, and followed my aunt down the rollaway stairs and onto the tarmac, where I drew my first breath of European air. The temperature was pleasantly mild, but heat rose from the pavement in visible waves, promising an uncomfortably warm afternoon. Baggage handlers were already at work unloading luggage from the cargo hold, and it was easy to pick out my suitcase and its matching cosmetic case, a gift from Aunt Maggie and Uncle Herman upon my graduation from college. Still unused two years later, they were starkly, pristinely white (“bridal white for the honeymoon!” I had exclaimed delightedly—naïvely—at the time), embarrassing-ly so amongst all these less beautiful but far more worldly bags bearing labels from London and Paris, Hawaii and Bermuda. I was aware of a certain self-consciousness as I picked them up and followed my aunt to the customs barrier. Aunt Maggie—no believer in traveling light—had collared a skycap to wrestle her four bags through customs and to the taxi stand, where he dumped them (with considerable relief, it seemed to me) into the trunk along with mine. Meanwhile, Aunt Maggie gave instructions to the taxi driver, overcoming the language barrier through a combination of gesticulation and sheer volume. At last we piled into the back seat and the taxi peeled out, tires squealing, into the traffic.

“He reminds me so much of your Uncle Herman,” Aunt Maggie said with a reminiscent sigh.

“Who, the taxi driver?” I glanced in bewilderment at the back of his head, and tried to reconcile the memory of my tall, thin, gray-haired uncle with the dark, somewhat stout Spaniard at the wheel, hurtling us through the streets of Barcelona at a speed that sent the plume of smoke from his cigarette flying out the open window in wispy white shreds. “Why?”

“Because Herman never listened to a word I said, either.”

Anything I might have said to this was obliged to wait, for at that moment the taxi turned a corner so sharply that I had to grab the armrest on the door to keep from being flung into Maggie’s lap. Once the danger passed, I settled back in my seat and watched as the city flew past, medieval churches juxtaposed oddly with bill-boards advertising Coca-Cola.

And suddenly there was our ship: the Oceanus, her sleek lines blindingly white against the blue of the sky and the still bluer hue of the sea, festooned from bow to stern with brightly colored flags flapping gaily in the breeze. The taxi drew up with a screech of brakes and a cloud of dust, and we climbed out, stretching our limbs gingerly to make sure they were still intact. I took a deep breath of air that smelled faintly of salt and fish while Aunt Maggie paid the taxi driver, a procedure that required yet another round of shouting and gesturing.

At last the matter was settled to the satisfaction of both, and the driver opened the trunk and unceremoniously dumped our suitcases on the sidewalk as if he couldn’t be rid of them soon enough. We gathered our luggage—I tucked Aunt Maggie’s smallest case under my arm—and we took our places at the end of the line straggling out from the gangplank. This, it soon transpired, wound its way through a maze of vendors’ booths, all selling souvenirs to tourists eager to lighten their wallets before boarding the ship. Offerings of chocolate and cured meats reminded me that I’d had nothing to eat but the modest breakfast provided by the airline, but Aunt Maggie pointed out that we would have all we could eat and more, once we’d boarded the ship. I did sigh briefly over a selection of lace mantillas in black, white, or scarlet, but my resolve was strengthened by the daunting prospect of putting down my luggage so that I might rummage through my purse for pesetas sufficient to make such a purchase. Another booth caught my eye, a booth festively decorated for Christmas although it was now the middle of May, and I stopped to stare in bewilderment at foot-long lengths of rough log with stubby wooden legs and a happy face painted on one sawn end.

“What are they?” I asked the smiling Spanish woman tending the booth. “¿Qué es?

Her smile grew broader as she picked up one of the logs, and I couldn’t be sure whether she detected a potential sale, or she simply thought my accent was funny.

“This, it is the caga tió, the, how do you say, the shitting log.”

“The what?” I hardly knew whether to be shocked or delighted.

“It is a very old tradition in Catalonia,” she explained. “Beginning with the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, the children feed the caga tió and cover it with a blanket to keep it warm. Then on Christmas Day, they sing to it and beat it with sticks so that it will sh—”

“Will poop,” Aunt Maggie put in primly, although I knew that with sufficient provocation, she could air a vocabulary that would make most sailors blush.

Si, will poop, as you say, candy and nuts.”

“That does it,” I announced, setting my luggage down and fumbling in my purse. “I’ve got to buy one of these things, or no one at home will believe it. How much? Er—¿Cuánto?

She named a sum—I had no idea whether it was a bargain, or highway robbery—and I counted out the coins into her hand and took possession of my very own caga tió. Declining her offer to box it up, I tucked it under my arm and picked up my suitcases—not without some difficulty, as Pooping Pedro kept trying to slide out from under my arm—and Maggie and I headed toward the gangplank and took our places in the slow-moving line of passengers waiting to board.

When we finally reached the top, the reason for the delay became obvious. After we had produced passports and boarding papers and collected our cabin keys, we were commanded to “Smile!” by a dark-haired, bronze-skinned young man whose face was obscured by a large camera. There was a burst of light from the flashbulb—apparently the lifeboats suspended overhead cast enough of a shadow to make the flash necessary in spite of the brilliant sun—and then the photographer lowered the camera.

“One more,” he said, and disappeared behind the camera again, but not before I’d had a glimpse of dark eyes, white teeth, and a nose that belonged on a Greek coin. I was suddenly and painfully aware of my wrinkled skirts and shiny makeup, all the more noticeable next to my aunt’s polished elegance. I need not have worried, though, for no sooner had the flash popped than he turned his attention to the elderly couple boarding the ship behind us. “Smile!”

I hurried along the deck after Maggie, not quite certain whether to be annoyed by his indifference, or grateful for it.

It was cool and dark below deck. I followed Maggie down the corridor to the narrow doors marked 322 and 324—our side-by-side cabins—inserted the small brass key into the lock of number 324, and pushed it open.

“It’s tiny!” I exclaimed.

“It’s a ship, Robin, not the Ritz-Carlton,” Aunt Maggie pointed out. “The cabins are not large, but you’ll be surprised at how much they manage to cram into such a tight space.”

She was right. On the opposite wall, two twin beds were positioned on each side of the curtained porthole with a small nightstand in between, while nearer at hand one corner had been turned into a rudimentary closet. A narrow door to my immediate right opened onto a private bath with its own microscopic shower. My luggage, which had been snatched away by a porter while I waited in line, had arrived before me, and now waited at the foot of one of the beds.

“Not spacious, perhaps, but it has everything you need,” Aunt Maggie said, apparently reading my mind. “Still, I thought we might find sharing a single cabin a bit too much togetherness. I’ll be right next door, though, if you need anything. And now,” She paused long enough to cover a yawn with one hand. “I intend to lie down and take a nap. I never sleep well on planes, and that infant across the aisle who cried all night certainly didn’t help. I suggest you do the same. Take a nap, I mean, not cry all night.”

I agreed to this plan, but once Aunt Maggie had departed for her own cabin, I found myself too restless to even think of sleeping. I set Pooping Pedro on the nightstand, then dragged the larger of my two suitcases onto the bed and began to unpack, hanging my dresses from the rod that constituted the closet and folding my underwear into the nightstand drawers. The second suitcase contained my cosmetics and toiletries, and these were soon stowed away in the bathroom. Having completed this task, I stepped out into the corridor (noting the “Do Not Disturb” hanger dangling from Aunt Maggie’s doorknob), locked the cabin door behind me, and retraced my steps to the deck.

Passengers were still boarding, although the line had slowed to a trickle. Looking at my fellow travelers, I began to understand why Gene had been so encouraging when I’d written to tell him of Aunt Maggie’s invitation: there was no one on board for him to be jealous of. The average age of the Oceanus’s passengers seemed to be about seventy, the only exceptions being the Greek god with the camera (who couldn’t really be said to count, since he was a member of the crew) and a slender young woman standing at the rail and looking out to sea, her long black hair hanging halfway to her waist beneath the wide brim of her hat. Someone’s daughter, I guessed, only to be proven wrong a moment later when she was approached by one of the older passengers, a well-preserved man with silver hair who stole an arm about her waist and planted a most unfatherly kiss on her scarlet lips. As she turned toward him, the sun caught her full in the face, and I realized she was older than I’d thought—forty if she was a day, although she was carefully and heavily made up to look at least a decade younger. The mistress, I thought, and abandoned any half-formed hope of making a female friend nearer my own age.

Any further inspection of my fellow passengers was interrupted by the loud blast of the ship’s horn announcing the “all aboard.” A flurry of activity followed, as the last stragglers came running up the gangplank, only to meet the hastily departing visitors running down after seeing their loved ones safely on board. Fifteen minutes later, the gangplank was lifted and the ropes that tethered Oceanus to her berth were cast off. Slowly, very slowly, the ship began to move away from the pier. Far below, the unfortunate souls left behind stood on the dock waving a final “bon voyage” to their friends and relatives. I leaned over the railing and waved back at them madly even though I didn’t know a single soul.

As the pier shrank from view, the long night of flying finally caught up with me, and I realized how sleepy I was. Resolving to follow Aunt Maggie’s example, I returned to my stateroom for a nap. I turned the key in the lock and pushed the door open—and saw a face grinning maniacally at me through the gloom.

2

Look for me by moonlight.

ALFRED NOYES, The Highwayman

 

In the next instant, the sinister face resolved itself into the cheerful features painted on the end of a holiday log.

“Oh, Pedro!” I scolded, pressing a hand to my pounding heart. “You scared me to death!”

Predictably, the caga tió said nothing, but continued to smile happily from the nightstand. I took off my hat and tossed it over Pedro’s painted face to prevent a similar scare when I awakened, then kicked off my shoes and collapsed onto the nearer of the two beds.

A light yet persistent tapping on the door eventually awoke me from a deep and dreamless sleep. “Robin, honey, are you awake?” my aunt called. “It’s almost time for the lifeboat drill, and then we’ll need to get dressed for the Captain’s Bon Voyage Reception.”

“I’m awake,” I called back, and tried hard to believe it. I rolled off the bed, noting how the lighting in my stateroom had changed since I’d been so startled by Pedro; apparently I had been asleep for some time. I staggered to the door and opened it as proof of my wakefulness.

At that moment the ship’s horn began emitting short, loud blasts, and if I hadn’t been awake already, that would have been more than sufficient to do the job. A requirement for sea-going vessels for almost fifty years—ever since the sinking of the Titanic—the lifeboat drill was mandatory for all passengers and crew. It was impossible not to know where we were supposed to go; the nearest muster station was clearly marked on a diagram just inside my cabin door, and similar diagrams were posted at intervals up and down the length of the passageway.

We arrived to find quite a crowd already gathered, and once the last stragglers had reported in to the crew member who checked off their names on a list of passengers, the exercise began. Two elderly ladies listened intently to the instructions as if quite certain their lives depended on their committing the procedure to memory, while one man with an anchor tattooed on his forearm was obviously annoyed at having to take time out of his vacation to listen to information he’d no doubt committed to memory during his days in the navy. Most passengers fell somewhere between the two extremes, my aunt and I among them.

After learning how to put on the bulky life jackets (not a flattering look by any means, but I suspected in a real emergency we would put them on eagerly enough with no thought for appearances), we were given instructions as to how to board a lifeboat (“One at a time, and with each person taking a seat quickly so as not to block the way for passengers behind”) and how to abandon ship, should it become necessary (“Put one hand over your mouth and pinch your nostrils shut with thumb and forefinger, then step—don’t jump—off the deck”). I couldn’t help wondering if anyone would actually remember any of this information in case of an actual emergency.

At last the drill was done, and we were dismissed to prepare for the reception.

“I’ll be ready in half an hour,” I promised Aunt Maggie when we parted company at the door of my stateroom. Once inside, I turned my attention to the task of transforming myself. A quick shower (there was really no point in lingering beneath the halfhearted trickle of hot water, since I could barely turn around in the tiny space allotted to it) made me feel human again, a feeling enhanced once I’d dressed in a long, full-skirted dress of periwinkle blue with a sheer overskirt of embroidered silver net and a wide, shallow scoop neck. By the time I’d slipped my feet into silver spangled pumps, the bathroom mirror had de-fogged sufficiently for me to put on makeup. I didn’t pile my hair up, but teased it into a pouf at the crown and fastened a silver bow in the front. Twenty-four minutes later—well within the half-hour I’d promised—I grabbed my small silver clutch bag, locked the door to my stateroom behind me, and tapped at Aunt Maggie’s door.

My aunt had cautioned me in advance that evenings aboard ship tended to be formal affairs, and I had packed accordingly; still, I was taken aback by the vision that stood in the corridor. Although Aunt Maggie was well into her fifties, her figure was still good, and she clearly intended to make the most of it. She wore a strapless number in shades of blue and green whose full skirt had been split from waist to hemline, revealing close-fitting slacks made of the same fabric. Her red hair had been piled up on her head, the better to draw attention to the emeralds that dangled from her ears.

“Oh, Maggie!” I breathed. “You look amazing!”

“Well, I did my best—although it’s difficult, when one is shown up by a beautiful young niece.”

I smiled in acknowledgment of the compliment, but made no comment. I would have looked ridiculous in anything even half so sophisticated—like a twelve-year-old playing dress-up—and she knew it as well as I did. Still, I was grateful for the first time that the fact I still lived with my parents meant I had few expenses, and therefore sufficient funds to buy plenty of new clothes for the trip. I hadn’t worn a formal gown since the senior prom, and it would have been too humiliating to accompany my stylish aunt to dinner dressed like a teenager.

“Don’t you look lovely!” she exclaimed, waving one hand in a circular motion that gave me to understand I was to turn around so she could inspect me from all angles. “Perfect,” she pronounced at the completion of this exercise. “That shade of blue just matches your eyes. Gene is an idiot.”

I rolled my eyes, but made no attempt to defend him. I hadn’t thought of Gene ever since I’d woke up, and realized to my surprise that I didn’t want to think of him now.

“But enough about him,” Maggie said quickly, apparently sensing my mood. “Let’s go dazzle our shipmates, shall we?”

The Captain’s Bon Voyage Reception—the brochure described it exactly like that, capital letters and all—was to be held on the Europa deck, which told me absolutely nothing about exactly where it was on the ship. All the decks had names calculated to evoke images of exotic ports of call. I’ll admit they were more glamorous than simple numbers, like hotel floors, but also considerably less informative. Thankfully, a framed diagram mounted next to the stairs indicated that Europa was down three decks from our present location on Capri Deck.

“By the time we dock in Venice, we’ll know this ship like the back of our hand,” my aunt predicted confidently, and started down the stairs.

We reached the Europa deck to find many of our fellow passengers there ahead of us, all talking with voices raised to make themselves heard over the splashing from a three-tiered fountain prominently located in the middle of a spacious atrium whose wide floor-to-ceiling windows looked out over the sea. A waiter in a crisp white dinner jacket appeared at Aunt Maggie’s elbow, proffering a tray of goblets filled with champagne. Maggie took two and handed one to me.

“Eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we d—”

“Dock in Livorno,” put in a deep masculine voice.

We both turned and beheld our captain, resplendent in a starched white uniform bristling with gold braid. He smiled at Aunt Maggie, teeth white against a suntanned face.

“Surely you don’t mean to suggest that I would fail to deliver two such lovely ladies safely to their destination?” he continued, dismissing the waiter with a glance. The man all but genuflected—no small feat while balancing a tray of champagne glasses—then took himself discreetly off.

“You don’t mean to tell me you’re the one in charge of this tub!” Maggie exclaimed. “Why, you’re no more than a boy!”

“Hardly a boy, madam,” he objected in charmingly accented English. “I am forty-two.”

“Is that supposed to make me feel better?” she challenged with exaggerated dismay. “Why, I’m old enough to be—no, not your mother, but certainly old enough to have been your babysitter.”

He laughed at that, a deep rumble that shook his chest and made his gold braid sparkle under the lights. “I could only wish to have had so charming a babysitter in my youth. And this—” He turned to me. “—this young lady must be your sister?” He meant “daughter,” of course, but I had to admire the man’s diplomacy.

“My niece,” Maggie put in with the indulgent smile of one who intends to enjoy such shameless flattery while she can, without for one moment taking it seriously. “She has never been abroad before, so I persuaded her to accompany me.”

“Excellent!” the captain declared, rubbing his hands together. “I look forward to the opportunity of sharing my beautiful country with you.”

“Oh, but I’ve been to Italy before,” Aunt Maggie corrected him. “My husband liberated Rome in ’45—not all by himself, of course, he had a little help from the rest of the Allied forces—and several years after the war he took me to Italy to show me some of the places he’d seen.”

“Of course,” the captain said, and after exchanging a few platitudes on the glories of the Coliseum and the Trevi Fountain, he turned away to speak to a couple of newcomers. For the first time it occurred to me that our captain might well have begun his maritime career with the Italian Navy, and I wondered if it was the mention of the war or Aunt Maggie’s having a husband that had caused him to beat a hasty retreat.

Deprived of the captain’s company, we took our places in the line at the buffet table, where a selection of savory finger foods was on offer. We filled our tiny plates, and as we looked about for somewhere to set our glasses down, I saw a couple of people I recognized: a distinguished-looking older man in a tuxedo, and a raven-haired woman in slinky red satin, cut low in both front and back.

“Oh, look!” I breathed in an undervoice. “It’s The Mistress and her Sugar Daddy!”

Who?” Delightfully scandalized, Aunt Maggie turned to look in the direction I indicated, just in time to see The Mistress plunk a grape into her benefactor’s mouth.

“At least, I think that’s who they must be. He’s definitely not her father, and I don’t think she looks like the marrying kind, do you?”

“Let’s find out, shall we?”

Maggie headed purposefully in their direction, and I, burdened with a plate in one hand and a champagne glass in the other, could do nothing to stop her. I hurried after her, not quite sure whether I hoped to prevent her from doing anything embarrassing, or to prevent me from missing anything interesting the pair might say. To my surprise (and yes, relief), my aunt did not approach them directly, but turned at the last minute as if to pass them by. Just as she drew abreast of the man, her cocktail napkin slipped from her fingers and fluttered to the floor.

“Oh dear!” she exclaimed helplessly, shifting plate and glass back and forth as if trying to decide how to reclaim the napkin without littering the carpet with canapés and/or champagne.

“Allow me.” The Sugar Daddy interrupted his low-voiced conversation with the woman long enough to balance his plate atop his champagne glass while he stooped to retrieve the errant napkin.

“Oh, thank you!” Aunt Maggie gushed. The man (who was seventy years old if he was a day) brushed aside her protestations with a smug smile, while The Mistress regarded Maggie with a tightening of her scarlet lips.

“Not at all,” he assured her. “Anything for a fellow passenger. Allow me to introduce myself: Graham Grimes, at your service, and my traveling companion, Sylvia Duprée.”

“Margaret Watson—Maggie, to my friends.”

Miss Duprée’s lips grew thinner. “Charmed, I’m sure.”

“And who is this lovely young lady?” The smile he bestowed on me was so avuncular I half expected him to pat me on the head.

“My niece, Robin Fletcher.”

“Miss Fletcher.” He acknowledged me with a nod. “Tell me, is this your first trip to Europe?”

“It is, Mr. Grimes, but I can’t tell you how chagrined I am that it’s so obvious!”

“Not at all,” he assured me, laughing. “Every young person should visit the Old World at least once, if for no other reason that it gives them a deeper appreciation of the New. Do you plan to spend tomorrow in Livorno?”

The question was addressed to both of us, but since Maggie had planned the details of our trip, I let her answer. “Actually, we planned to spend the morning in Florence, with a side trip to Pisa in the afternoon—see if we can straighten up that tower for them, you know.”

Mr. Grimes laughed as if this quip were wonderfully funny; I supposed it must be the champagne making him particularly jovial. Unfortunately, it didn’t seem to be having the same effect on Miss Duprée, who looked as if steam were about to start coming out her ears. I was a bit surprised that she considered Maggie a threat, since she must have been younger by a decade. I wondered if perhaps she wasn’t quite so certain of Mr. Grimes’s affections as she would have liked.

“Have you been to Livorno before?” Maggie was asking. “Can you tell me how to find the bus station?”

“Oh, surely there’s no need for that,” put in a new voice. All four of us turned en masse to regard the newcomer, a tall man of about sixty with silver hair and blue eyes behind horn-rimmed spectacles. I glanced at my aunt, and noticed an appreciative gleam in Aunt Maggie’s eyes. Beyond her, Miss Duprée’s eyes narrowed appraisingly, as if she were comparing her present situation with the possibility of future prospects.

“I’ve hired a car for the very same route,” the man continued. “Why not come with me? I’m afraid I can’t show you the sights—I have a meeting with a colleague—but I can give you a lift there and back. My name is Paul Hurley, I live in Virginia, I’m a surgeon—semi-retired—and I have a clean driving record. Is there anything else you’d like to know?”

“All right, Dr. Hurley, you’ve convinced me,” declared Aunt Maggie, laughing. “I can’t say I was looking forward to squeezing aboard a crowded bus, especially if we do much shopping.”

“I also happen to be a dab hand at carrying parcels,” the doctor assured her. “But won’t you call me Paul?”

“Only if you call me Maggie.”

“Smile!”

All five of us turned as one, just in time to be blinded by a flash of light. Most of the culprit’s face was hidden behind his camera, but the gleam of white teeth below the lens and the thick waves of black hair above were sufficient for me to identify the same photographer who’d snapped my photo as I’d boarded the ship travel-stained and jet-lagged. I glared at him, or at least in his general direction, as near as I could tell from the spots dancing in front of my eyes.

“Do you have to do that?” I grumbled under my breath, as the others returned to their interrupted conversation.


AUTHOR Q&A

About me

Sheri Cobb South is the award-winning author of more than twenty novels, including the popular Regency-era historical mystery series featuring Bow Street Runner John Pickett and the critically acclaimed Regency romance The Weaver Takes a Wife. After going on a Mediterranean cruise with her husband in 2015, she decided to write an "old-school" romantic suspense novel as a tribute to Mary Stewart, Phyllis Whitney, and the others of that genre whose works gave her a lifelong craving for travel.

Q. Where did the idea for this book come from?
A.
When my husband and I went on a Mediterranean cruise, I decided to try my hand at a romantic suspense novel based on the places we visited. I wanted to write the kind of book I'd loved as a teenager, the kind with exotic settings that made me dream of seeing firsthand the places I'd only read about.
Q. Why do you write?
A.
I write because I can't *not* write, if that makes any sense. Characters get into my head and demand that their story be told, or some situation (real or imagined) pops into my head, and I start wondering "What if?" I can't imagine a better job than being paid to play with my imaginary friends!
Q. Where can readers find out more about you?
A.
I have a website at www.shericobbsouth.com where I post information about new releases, or, for more direct interaction, a Facebook author page at https://www.facebook.com/SheriCobbSouth/ where readers can ask questions, talk to other readers, etc.

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