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About the author:
My first novel, Burning Embers, is a vivid, evocative love story set against the backdrop of tempestuous and wild Kenya of the 1970s, reviewed by one newspaper as ‘romance like Hollywood used to make’. My new novel, The Echoes of Love, is a story of passion, betrayal and intrigue set in the romantic and mysterious city of Venice and the beautiful landscape of Tuscany.
What inspired you to write your book?
Venice so captured my imagination that I knew some day I would write a romance novel set in this most elegant and fascinating of cities. But it had to be the right story to fit the place. For me, that meant a story that reflected the two faces of Venice – the mask she wears, and the true form beneath.
Here is a short sample from the book:
The clock struck midnight just as Venetia went past the grand eighteenth-century mirror hanging over the mantelpiece in the hall. Instinctively she looked into it and her heart skipped a beat. In the firelight she noticed that he was there again, an almost illusory figure, leaning against the wall at the far end of the shadowy room, steady eyes intense, watching her from behind his black mask. An illusory figure indeed, because when Venetia turned around he was gone.
Venetia shivered. Nanny Horren’s voice resounded through her head, reminding her of the strange Celtic superstitions that the Scottish governess used to tell her. One in particular came to mind. ‘Turn off the light and look into the mirror by firelight at midnight on Shrove Tuesday,’ the old woman would whisper to the impressionable and imaginative teenage Venetia, ‘and if you see a face reflected behind your own, it’ll be the face of the love of your life, the man you will marry someday.’
Was this what had just happened to Venetia? Was this stranger the love of her life?
Rubbish, she remonstrated, laughing uneasily into her own eyes, you’re mad! Haven’t you learnt your lesson? Venetia had indulged in such fantasies several years ago and had only managed to get hurt. Now, she knew better. Still, she did not move away. Venetia leant closer to the mirror that reflected her pale, startled face in the flickering light, as tremors of the warm feelings of yester love suddenly flooded her being. For a few moments she seemed to lose all sense of where she was and felt as though she stood inside a globe, watching the wheel of time turning back ten years.
Gareth Jordan Carter. ‘Judd’. It was a diminutive of Jordan, chosen by Venetia who hated the name Gareth and didn’t care much for the name Jordan either. Judd had been her first love, and as far as Venetia was concerned, her last. She had been young and innocent then; only eighteen. Today, at twenty-eight, she liked to think she was a woman of the world, who would not allow herself to be trapped by the treacherous illusions of passion, however appealing they might seem. She had paid a high price for her naivety and impetuosity.
Venetia tried to shake herself clear of those haunting phantasms and her thoughts ambled back to the masked stranger – well, almost a stranger.
Their brief encounter had occurred the evening of the first night of Il Carnevale di Venezia, ten days before Shrove Tuesday …
It was nearly seven-thirty and the shops were beginning to shut down for the night. The wind that had blown all day had dropped, and a slight haze veiled the trees, as if gauze had been hung in front of everything that was more than a few feet away. The damp air was soaked with silence.
Venetia tightened the belt of her coat around her slim waist and lifted the fur collar snugly about her neck. The sound of her footsteps echoed off the pavement as she hurried towards the Rialto Bridge from Piazza San Marco, a solitary figure in an almost deserted street. She was on her way to catch the vaporetto water bus, which would drop her off at Palazzo Mendicoli where she had an apartment. A few huddled pedestrians could be seen on the opposite pavement, and there was not much traffic on the great inky stretch of water of the Grand Canal.
Suddenly Venetia saw two figures spring out in front of her from the surrounding darkness. They were enveloped in carnevale cloaks, with no visible faces, only a spooky blackness where they should have been. A hand materialised from under the all-encompassing wrap of one of the sinister creatures and grabbed at her bag. Chilled to the bone, Venetia tried to scream but the sound froze in her throat. Struggling, she hung onto the leather pouch which was looped over her shoulder and across her front as she tried to lift her knee to kick him in the groin, but her aggressors were prepared. An arm was thrown around her throat from the back and the second figure produced a knife.
Just as he was going to slash at the strap of her bag, an imposing silhouette emerged from nowhere and with startling speed its owner swung at Venetia’s attacker with his fist, knocking him off balance. With a grunt of pain the man fell backwards, tripping over his accomplice who gave a curse, and they both tumbled to the ground. Then, picking themselves up in a flash, they took to their heels and fled into the hazy gloom.
‘Va tutto bene, are you alright?’ The stranger’s light baritone voice broke through Venetia’s disoriented awareness, and he looked down anxiously into her large amber eyes.
‘Yes, yes, I think so,’ she panted, her hands going to her throat.
‘Are you hurt at all?’
‘No, no just a little shaken, thank you.’
‘You’re shivering. You’ve had a bad shock and you need a warm drink. Come. There’s a caffeteria that serves the best hot chocolate in Venice, just a few steps from here. It’ll do you good.’ Without waiting for a response, he took Venetia’s arm and led the way down the narrow street.
Venetia’s knees felt like jelly and her teeth were chattering. ‘Thanks,’ she murmured, still trying to catch her breath, her heart pounding, and let herself be guided by her tall, broad-shouldered rescuer, who seemed to have taken the situation into his hands.
Thus does Fate cast her thunderbolts into our lives, letting them fall with a feather-like touch, dulling our senses to the storm they would cause should we realise their devastating powers.
They sat in silence at a table in a far-off corner of the crowded caffeteria. There was too much noise to talk and Venetia was exhausted, so she concentrated on appraising the man sitting opposite her as she listened to the music playing: Mina’s nostalgic 1960 love song, ‘Il Cielo in una Stanza’, the unashamedly romantic hit that was so Italian, and which was therefore still frequently played as a classic all over the country.
Venetia’s guardian angel looked more like Lucifer than a celestial being, with his tempestuous blue eyes, curiously bright against the warm tan of his skin, which slanted a fraction upwards under heavy, dark brows when he smiled. They were staring intently at her now with an emotion which puzzled her, and for a few seconds she found herself helplessly staring back into them. It was like gazing into shimmering water.
Strong, masculine features graced his nut-brown face beneath a thick crop of raven-black hair, sleek and shining, swept back from a wide forehead. He wasn’t good-looking in the classical sense, his face was too craggy for that immediate impact, but he was a striking man who emanated controlled power, someone used to making decisions who would not be swayed by any argument or sentiment; a hard man. Still, his steeliness was tempered by the enigmatic curve that lifted the corners of his generous mouth into a promise of laughter; this, coupled with the deep cleft in the centre of his chin, gave him a roguish expression that Venetia found appealing.
The waiter brought over a cup of hot chocolate, a double espresso and a plate of biscotti which he said were offered con i complimenti della casa. Her rescuer was obviously a regular customer.
Venetia took a few sips of the thick, warm brew. She felt herself revive as it trickled down her throat, becoming a warm glow in her stomach which reflected on her cheeks.
The stranger smiled at her. ‘Feeling better?’
She nodded. ‘Thank you, you’ve been so very kind.’
His smile broadened. ‘You are welcome, signorina. It is always a pleasure to come to the rescue of a beautiful lady. My name is Paolo Barone, at your service.’
Venetia had been working in Italy for over three years as an architect cum interior designer in her godmother’s architect firm, and was used to the gallant ways and the charm of Italian men. She found their smooth repartee refreshing, and sometimes even amusing, but never took them too seriously. Paolo Barone was different. Maybe it was because she was in shock and felt vulnerable, but nevertheless her heart warmed to this man, who, although not that young, was still in his prime – middle to late thirties perhaps – and she relaxed. Still, even though the circumstances in this case were unusual, Venetia was not used to accepting invitations from strangers, so she deliberately made no conversation; and to her surprise neither did he.
As she raised the warm cup to her lips with both hands, she was aware of him looking at her directly with unabashed interest. Was he trying to decipher her, she wondered? Relieved that the hot drink’s effect on her cheeks was hiding the slight confusion she felt beneath, she sipped a little too quickly and cooled her lip with the tip of her tongue. Then realising what she had done, she glanced up to see his expression deepen into something else, which made her instantly lower her eyes.
When she had finished her chocolate, Paolo smiled at her. ‘Andiamo? Shall we go?’ he asked, cocking his head to one side and looking at Venetia with curiosity.
Sparkling hazel eyes flecked with gold smiled back at him through long black lashes that somehow did not belong with her chestnut hair. ‘Yes. Thank you for the hot chocolate. It is really the best chocolate I’ve had in Venice.’
He helped her with her coat, lifting her glorious long locks over the fur collar. At five foot seven inches, Venetia was tall but as he faced her and began buttoning the garment himself, she noticed again how he towered over her. His hands were strong and masculine; she had a curious sensation of warm familiarity, as though he had performed this act with her several times before. Yet mingled with that feeling came one of embarrassment; his touch seemed a rather intimate gesture instead of the impersonal indifference of a stranger, and she drew away with a little nervous laugh.
‘Thank you, that won’t be necessary.’
He held her gaze intently for a moment, as if surprised at what she had said, and she looked down again, for some reason unable to meet those midnight-blue eyes and their burning intensity. Then he smiled and held the door open.
‘By the way, I don’t know your name,’ Paolo said as they stepped out into the misty night and began walking towards the Grand Canal.
‘Venetia. Venetia Aston-Montagu.’
He quirked a black eyebrow. ‘A very romantic name, Venetia, like our beautiful city. But you’re not Italian? You speak Italian like a native.’
She laughed. ‘Thank you for the compliment. No, I’m actually English, but I was named by my godmother, who is Venetian. She was my mother’s best friend and she insisted I learn Italian.’
‘So you’re on holiday here?’
‘No, I live here.’
‘No, in the Dorsoduro district. I need to catch the vaporetto, as the entrance to the building where I live is on the Grand Canal.’
‘My launch is moored across the street. Dorsoduro is on my way. It would be a pleasure for me to drop you off.’
‘No, thank you. You’ve already been very kind.’
‘It’s late and snow has been forecast for tonight. The vaporetto is bound to be almost empty. I wouldn’t want you to come to any harm, signorina. I will give you a lift.’ He spoke quietly with an air of command, his hand coming up to her elbow, but she avoided it hastily.
It was very tempting to accept, but Venetia would not let herself. This stranger was a little too attentive, she thought, and though she had been grateful for his kind invitation to a hot chocolate when she was in distress, and could still recall the feel of his hands buttoning up her coat, she was not in the habit of being picked up by men.
‘No really, thank you very much. I’m used to travelling by vaporetto. It’s quite safe.’
Paolo did not insist, and for the rest of the way they walked in silence through the narrow, tortuous alleys, Venetia conscious of his nearness in every fibre of her being.
It was bitterly cold. The wind was whistling and a bank of threatening cloud hung over Venice like a white cloak. As they arrived at the waterbus stop, a few snowflakes started to come down. A couple of gondolas, their great steel blades looming dangerously out of the soft velvety mist, glided by swiftly over the gently lapping waters.
‘Are you sure you don’t want to change your mind? It looks as though there’ll be a blizzard and the vaporetto may be delayed.’ He looked at her with a polite, but guarded smile and she felt a momentary pang of regret at her determination to escape him.
Paolo’s pride was spared a new refusal as they heard the croaky purr of the vaporetto announcing its lazy approach.
‘Here comes my bus,’ Venetia said cheerfully. ‘I’ll be home in no time.’
The boat appeared and presently drew up at the small station, bumping the landing stage as it did so.
‘Thanks again for all your help, signore,’ she went on, smiling as she held out her small, perfectly manicured hand to say goodbye. The young man took it in his own, which was large and warm, and held it a trifle longer than would be usual. Venetia stood there with waves of heat passing over her, her senses suddenly heightened at this contact. She abruptly withdrew her hand.
His blue hawk eyes gazed down at her, intent though unfathomable, and he paused uncertainly. ‘Will you dine with me tomorrow night?’ he uttered in a low voice.
It would be exciting to dine with Paolo, she thought, but you must run from him, urged the echo of an insistent voice within her; this man has the power to hurt you.
‘I’m so sorry,’ she replied stiffly. ‘I’m afraid I’m busy.’
‘That’s a pity.’ He sounded as if he meant it, but did not insist, leaving her feeling curiously disappointed. He held out his hand again, silently, and she took it, also without a word. There was nothing lax or vague in his firm grasp. Like many people, Venetia was swift to gauge character by the quality of a handclasp and had known many apparently vigorous men whose fingers were like limp fish. Once more, she was aware that Paolo’s large, sensitive hands held a strength and vitality that stirred her deeply.
She hurried onto the vaporetto, suddenly eager to flee, but as the waterbus pulled away from the quay, she watched him go up the stairs and disappear into the snow-white night with a strange sinking of the heart, wondering if she would ever see him again.