The Italian Job

 

                                              Chapter 1

I landed the assignment to go to Rome, not because I was the best writer on the staff of L. A. Life Magazine, nor because I could speak Italian, because I couldn't. My incredibly important skill was availability. Time was short, Jason was on his honeymoon, Pamela was very pregnant, and no less than three staff members were out with the flu, or so they said. In May, go figure. Or perhaps because no one else was willing to fly 3000 miles on two-days’ notice. Shows what a stunningly bad social life can do for you.

Even so, my boss, Mr. Hardcastle, the first part of whose name should give you an idea of his personality, hesitated before giving his assent long enough to grow mold on my sweaty palms.

"You aren't going to mess up again, are you?"

Like I planned to. Like climbing into the window of a strange person’s hotel room on my previous assignment for the magazine had been a well-thought-out decision. In truth, it was nothing but a fluke, the unavoidable result of making a serious miscalculation. Which, I fervently vowed, would never happen again.

"No, of course not." I straightened up to my full five feet, six inches and shook my head. Which unfortunately set my ponytail swinging, not a good thing.

Hardcastle frowned. "So go already. My secretary will give you the tickets and itinerary. Take your laptop and be sure it works this time."

I'd only made that mistake once so he had no call to remind me. And anyway, even without the laptop, I'd remembered almost the entire interview from that assignment and my article was highly praised in some circles.

"And, Sydney, don't forget this is your last chance."

He meant that threat, so I smiled and hurried from his office before he could change his mind about Rome.

The next day I found my never-used passport, had my hair trimmed, and packed my itinerary, tickets and laptop. I planned to record every minute of my first European experience into my journal and tucked it into my seriously overpriced handbag. I went to bed before nine in order to catch a very early flight out of Los Angeles the next morning.

However, as so often happens with me, I couldn't fall asleep for hours. My brain wanted to replay the episode of the window, perhaps to reinforce in my conscious mind that the entire thing had not been my fault.

I’d been given the assignment to interview a minor local politician running for office in the next election, and I sat opposite him in an armless chair in his hotel room. I asked questions and he answered politely but softly in what I later realized he considered a sexy voice. As I leaned forward to hear him, my skirt hiked up over my knees. I attempted to pull it down, dropped my notebook and bent to pick it up, and suddenly he was all over me like a case of hives.

I managed to get out of his clutches and protested in no uncertain terms, but he would have none of it. We did a little cha-cha around the sofa, and then, after slowing him down by pushing an end table in front of him, I grabbed my purse, dashed into the bedroom and slammed the door.

Yes, that might sound like a foolish thing to have done, but I knew that old hotel. The windows were actually French doors and led to outside balconies. My aim was to get out there and call for help.

Much to my surprise, he didn't follow me. Maybe he had a phone call, or he fell over the end table, or someone came to the door, but my problem remained. It was dark--he had set the interview time for evening--and the balcony was two stories above the street, too far for jumping, even if I were an Olympic athlete instead of someone whose only exercise is changing the sheets on her bed.

However, the next balcony being merely a foot away, I decided to swing over to it, enter the next room by way of those French doors and return to the hotel hallway. The next room, which I could only see through a crack in closed drapes, seemed dark and empty. I paused but reasoned that even if someone were staying there, chances were slim it would be another man bent on hanky-panky.

So I hiked up my skirt, swung my legs over the two balcony railings and gently tried the handle of the door. It was jerked open from inside, and suddenly I was face to face with a fledgling actor in town to audition for a part in an upcoming film.

Of course, I didn't know his occupation at the time. That came in the next-day's newspapers. Even so, it could all have ended unobtrusively except that someone had apparently called a paparazzo, who flashed a bright light at me. I froze like a safe-cracker with his hand on the dial, Mr. Actor pulled me into his room, and I found myself among a dozen people watching a film clip on the room's DVD player.

I was labeled a "groupie," handed an eight-by-ten glossy signed by the actor, and laughingly sent on my way.

Except that, someone had taken pictures, and, as a result of the sudden publicity, Mr. Actor got a role in an action-adventure film. At the same time, while climbing over the balcony, my handbag had slipped off my shoulder, and the photographer found the magazine’s business cards. Mr. Hardcastle was not amused.

I wrote up the interview as if none of that had occurred, because I preferred to think the politician perhaps never behaved that way before. Also, I learned a long time ago that I have plenty of faults of my own, so I lean toward forgiving others for theirs.

* * *

Sydney’s Journal

Day One

I flew from Los Angeles to Washington several hours after I expected to. Some of the first class seats had developed problems requiring the ministrations of a maintenance crew, and we were unable to board for some time. As usual, my luck had decided not to be a lady that day.

The airline generously offered us coupons for Starbucks Coffee while we waited. Nevertheless, I missed my connecting flight, and evening arrived before I landed in Washington, boarded a Boeing 747 to Rome and plopped into a window seat in coach.

Almost immediately after stowing my suitcase in the overhead bin and tucking my laptop and purse under the seat in front of me, I realized the man standing in the aisle spoke to my seat-mate in French. I couldn't speak Italian, but I had studied French in school and mentally translated, "Vous ete Francais?" as the English, "You are French?"

Having received a "Oui," in response, the man, who was slender, sandy-haired, and dressed casually in khaki pants and a knit pullover, spoke again to the man currently sitting in the aisle seat next to me.

"Voulez-vous desire a changez avec moi?" Sandy-hair accompanied the question with gestures pointing first to the seat the Frenchman occupied and then the one in the center five-seat row ahead.

The Frenchman bobbed his head, said, "Merci," and immediately retrieved a brown tote-bag from in front of his feet and rose to make the switch.

After which, Sandy-hair dropped into the just-vacated seat next to me and stowed his own bag. He turned to me and, as if he felt the need to explain, said, in American English that he'd obviously grown up speaking, "He's traveling with his wife and daughter, and I thought they'd prefer to sit together."

"How very nice of you." I smiled briefly and turned toward the window, where my vision took in only the sight of the stubbornly-unmoving jetway.

Sandy-hair seemed compelled to offer more explanation. "I noticed they didn't have seats together in the first place. Maybe they booked late or, like me, they prefer the bulkhead row and couldn't get three seats together."

I thought his earnest speech made some reply necessary. "But now you've given up your own seat in the bulkhead row."

He grinned. "It seemed like a good idea at the time. He looked as if embarrassed that his generosity had been noted, and I admired that. I also found him quite good-looking and younger than I first thought, maybe early thirties or even late twenties.

He was also quite tall, which made his giving up his seat even kinder. "I suppose you like the extra leg room?"

"Plus the fact there'd be no one sitting in front of me to put the back of his seat down in my lap."

"I know what you mean." I smiled in sympathy, although I hadn't done as much traveling by air as this man apparently had.

"It can be claustrophobic. These coach seats are narrow to begin with, and when that happens I feel as if I'm sitting in a coffin." He shrugged as if he'd survived worse.

I felt rapport building, then checked myself. I was not there to get acquainted with a good-looking man. Hardcastle meant it when he said the assignment might be my last. I mustn't blow it.

"Do you speak French?" Sandy-hair asked next.

"Un petite peu." I put my forefinger and thumb together, like holding a pinch of salt.

He grinned again, a really sincere, friendly grin. "In France perhaps?"

"No, in high school about a thousand years ago."

"If you're like me, a hundred anyway. Do you also know a wee bit of Italian?"

"Unfortunately no." I liked his looks, his smile and his courtesy, but what I didn't need just then was a long conversation to distract me from what my boss expected me to do. I was rescued from having to say more because the flight attendant came through the aisle reminding us to fasten our seatbelts. The jumbo jet began to move.

"That's too bad. It's seven hours to Rome, and I have an English-to-Italian dictionary in my bag. Would you like to borrow it?"

"Thanks, but I have to read this." I held up the guidebook of Rome, Florence and Venice I had promised Hardcastle I'd read on the flight.

He held up a paperback mystery, one of those modern ones where the women practice karate as well as they pronounce it.

I didn’t comment, and he nodded and turned aside, as if assuming I'd rather not be disturbed. That was the message I needed to send, although I was regretting it every second.

While the plane taxied to the runway and finally took off, I thought of what my mother always said when she knew I headed out on a traveling assignment: that a single woman traveling alone had better be prepared to be hit on by men. As if I didn't know. In my twenty-five years I'd had enough encounters with men to know that some did, and usually not because they expected me to be the most witty and erudite of companions. Besides, the memory of the incident with the politician remained only too fresh in my thoughts. He definitely had something else on his mind than wondering if I shopped on Rodeo Drive. However, I hadn't expected to fend off a male so soon on that trip. I thought I might have to wait until I got to Italy where they allegedly pinched women's bottoms as a matter of culture.

I didn't really feel this particular man had behaved at all aggressively, especially when we were to be seat-mates for seven hours. A little polite conversation undoubtedly went with the territory. In fact, keeping unsuitable men from trying to seduce me often made sticking strictly to business on assignments a sizeable chore. I sometimes considered myself a misfit: a prudent woman in the new millennium when Americans were allowed, if not obliged, to be hedonistic.

The flight attendant appeared again and took drink orders. I asked for Seven-Up, then put my book in my lap and lowered the tray table so she could put a package of nuts and a paper napkin on it. My companion did the same, and I noticed he'd ordered Seven-Up as well. I couldn't help smiling at that. At least he didn’t plan to get drunk during the flight.

The smile must have done it. He offered his hand. "I'm Taylor Mitchell. If I'm bothering you, just tell me to shut up."

I would never do that, even with Hardcastle's threats running around like gerbils in my head. Besides, since it would be hard to ignore someone seated so close to me during the long flight--I didn't sit that close to a date in a movie theatre--I thought we might as well be friendly.

I put out my own hand. "Sydney Cooke."

"I gather you're traveling alone. Business or pleasure?"

"Business. I'm researching an article for the magazine I work for. How about you?"

"I'm on vacation, using my frequent flyer miles. I missed a flight because my program apparently has more blackout days than a punch-drunk boxer."

I liked his sense of humor. Yet before I could answer, the flight attendant reappeared and pushed a cart down the aisle. She asked what we'd like for dinner.

While we ate, he continued the conversation. "After a day or two in Rome, I'm going to Lake Como to paint."

"As in pictures? You're an artist?"

"Part-time, more of a hobby, really. In winter I free-lance in computers and electronics, and in spring and summer I paint and sell my work in galleries in Scottsdale and San Francisco."

"Are you famous? Should I have heard of you?" Although impressed, I thought him too young to be famous. However, as a person who knows next to nothing about serious art, I wouldn't know anyway.

He threw back his head and laughed, a rich, throaty sound. "Good heavens, no. It's a nice dream, but I'm not that ambitious. I just like to make enough money to support my life-style. I'm somewhat of a loner."

I assumed his comment, and the fact he wore no wedding ring, meant he wasn't married. Not that I considered him an eligible man. I hoped to meet one sometime, just not now when my job was probably at stake. Still, I liked the fact he wasn’t one of those married men who apparently justified an extra-marital fling as long as he left his wife behind in a different zip-code. And then, once the plane landed, I'd probably never see Mr. Mitchell again.

"Did you bring your paints and an easel with you on this trip?"

"Too much hassle and not necessary anymore." He bent down, unzipped his black nylon carryall, and pulled out a camera. "Digital." He offered it to me. "I can take as many as six hundred pictures and store them on tiny discs. Then when I get back home I put them into my computer, print out larger versions and paint from them in my studio."

While I turned the small camera over in my hands, he joked, "Ain't technology wonderful?" Although I knew how they worked because I owned a small digital camera myself, I didn’t admit it. I could tell he liked telling me about it. Or else it was an excuse to take my picture and up the stakes.

"Let me show you." He took the camera from me, leaned back into the aisle a little way and pointed it at my face. He clicked a button on the camera and returned it to me.

I saw myself in the tiny screen and handed it back to him. "So now you can erase it and take a picture of something else?"

"I could, but maybe I want to keep this one. In case I ever want to paint a beautiful redhead."

Although I'd been called that before, I think my hair is more brown than red. Yet who am I to disagree with someone who puts "beautiful" in front of it? I felt my face grow warm. I'd had my share of compliments, but somehow I enjoyed this one more than the others.

We talked of weather and the unique problems connected with travel. I felt an attraction toward him growing. We both remembered a smattering of high school French, and although I enjoyed Taylor's company, I kept thinking about the guidebook I should be reading. Then I rationalized almost immediately that Hardcastle surely didn't expect me to study instead of eat. I told myself I'd open the book as soon as the dinner service was over.

When coffee was served and the in-flight movie came on, Taylor looked up at the screen and sighed. "I'm afraid I've seen this before."

"Me too." I made a face. "And wish I hadn't."

He turned to me with a questioning look. "What didn't you like about it?"

I groaned. "Oh, there I go putting my foot in my mouth again." In my opinion, conversation would be more fun if people said what they thought. But, because I often do, I'm unfit for polite society. "I suppose you're going to say you loved it."

"I wondered if you found it as childish as I did."

"I guess ninety percent of movies these days are made for teens."

"The girl in the film was pretty, but, well--"

I'd been thinking, "smart as a smoked salmon," but instead I offered, "Intellectually challenged?"

"How about dumb as a post?"

I laughed. "Close enough."

"I suppose if we're not going to watch the movie we can talk a bit more."

I wanted to, but Hardcastle’s voice in my head kept saying, "No, no, no." How was I ever going to study my guidebook at that rate? I pulled the book from under the napkin in my lap and showed it to him again. "I'm supposed to be learning this."

Taylor shrugged. "I guess I ought to try to get some rest. It'll be morning when we land." He pushed his seat back down, turned off his overhead light and closed his eyes. "See you in Rome."

I hoped I hadn't offended him, but he picked the wrong moment to enter my life. I needed my job, and that required I know something about Italy before I got there. I opened the book to the section on ancient Rome. However, due to remembering the window fiasco, I'd had very little sleep the night before, and soon my vision began to blur and I found myself yawning between every sentence I read. Maybe if I just rested my eyes for a few minutes...

 

 

 
copyright 2008 - www.phyllishumprey.com | home | about Phyl | book list | writing tips | contact | blog |

Chapter 1

"I wouldn't ask Gary Pritchard to captain Southern Star if he were the last skipper left alive in the Bahamas!"

Marilee Shaw rarely put herself in the position of having to eat her own words, but as she walked quickly along the dock to where Southern Star lay tied at anchor, the challenge she uttered earlier lingered in her ears as well as on her tongue. So much for rash promises.

"That sounds vaguely familiar, except this morning it was the entire world." Jane Owens, who owned a catering service that supplied food for local charters, and who at sixty had the energy of most women at forty-five, hurried to keep up with Marilee's long-legged stride. "Now that you've changed your mind, let's not quibble over geography."

As she neared the yacht she had recently inherited, Marilee slowed her pace. The largest and most luxurious of the two dozen craft berthed in the marina, the Star swayed gently atop the water's surface.

"I wish I could think of one good reason, even two bad ones, why he should agree to take Southern Star out on this cruise." Her gaze swept the fifty-two foot length of the yacht. With a sigh, she climbed the gangplank, a red and white For Sale sign in one hand and a roll of tape in the other. Although the Star was listed with three brokers, one at Harbour Island there on Eleuthera, and two in Nassau, the capital of the Bahamas, it paid to be practical.

"He loved you once," Jane said from the deck below. "Men don't forget those things, although they like to pretend they do."

"Whatever he felt, that was eight years ago. Men don't stay in love that long." All he was likely to remember was how much she’d hurt him. "He'll say 'no'."

After securing the sign to the forward window of the saloon, Marilee turned quickly and, with Jane, left the yacht and dock behind, heading for the nearby cinder block building that housed her late father's office for South Wind Charters. As she made her way across the asphalt roadway and down the cement sidewalk, a crisp Atlantic breeze, carrying the fresh, clean scent of salt air, riffled through her hair. The sun felt warm on her skin and she would have liked to enjoy it further, but enjoyment of any kind had been pushed to somewhere below "read everything by Shakespeare" on her list of priorities.

She pushed open the office door and went to the desk where piles of invoices, outdated correspondence, and an unhealthy preponderance of bills greeted her. Having sorted through all that paper for the past three weeks, she wanted to sweep it into the trash and return home to California.

"I need a miracle," she said. "Only something tells me that Gary will not be the knight who rides to my rescue."

"Then why are you going all the way down to Governor's Harbour when you already know his answer?" Mischief danced in the depths of Jane's dark eyes.

"Because I'm a masochist." Marilee sank into the ancient swivel chair. "Because I have this overpowering urge to have him slam the door in my face. Because I believe in living dangerously. Take your pick."

"I like the last," Jane said.

"Unfortunately, I have few options. This is simple economics. Either I honor the last commitment Dad left on the books, or the bank will repossess the Star." She stared at the invoice confirming a ten-day charter for Tom Wellman and a party of four. The very fact of the cruise seemed an answer to her prayers. How else could she make even one payment to the bank?

"Dad put his entire life into the Star," she continued. "Now he’s left her to me, every gleaming, mortgaged foot of her. They'll sell her at auction for a fraction of what she's worth. I can't let them do that."

"You've convinced me," Jane said, "and you'll convince Gary. I think it a good sign he's come back to Eleuthera after all those years he lived away. As if he knew you were going to need him."

"That's one way of looking at it." Marilee had already decided she needed a second miracle, finding a skipper. She stood and picked up her keys. "But I still wish there was another way. Any other way. Taming lions would have to be a picnic compared to coaxing Gary into this assignment."

She remembered their last meeting vividly. Hurt had burned in his eyes and it had taken her the better part of two years to stop hating herself for what she believed, at the time, was the right decision.

"Don't feel you have to be overly scrupulous." Jane, never one to keep good advice to herself, pressed each point home with emphasis. "Play on his sense of fairness. Your father helped Gary get started in this business, made it possible for him to buy his first yacht. Loyalty and obligation are sentiments he'll understand."

"I'll try." Marilee paused at the door. "But will they work when he knows I've got a fifty-two-foot white elephant on my hands?"

"Gary Pritchard was like a son to your father. You might want to remind him of that, too."

They stepped out into the bright sunshine. "This sounds like a pep rally. You know, one up for our side." She laughed, but it came out sounding forced.

After saying goodbye to Jane, she climbed into the Jeep and, as she turned the key, its engine sprang to life. She felt a moment's hesitation, but before she allowed herself to think of the consequences, swung the Jeep onto the road and headed south toward Governor's Harbour.

Her memory was good and the area she sought was not too difficult to find. Eleuthera Island, less than 100 miles long and under five miles wide in many places, could be covered in less than three hours. In the past, she had explored every inch of it with her father, but that had been only after her parents divorced and he moved from Florida to the Bahamas, where he thought business would be better. She drove past old homes, lying on either side of the hill, half secluded by tropical shrubs, tranquil and quiet. That day, however, she had no time to slow and admire their quaint beauty. Then she was past the few shops, the supermarket, the bank, the church she had once attended and over the ridge where the road ran toward sandy beaches.

An hour later, she recognized Gary's house from Jane's brief description. She climbed out of the Jeep and walked slowly up the flagstone path. All smoked glass and wood and vaulted roof, the house was bordered on three sides by immaculately kept emerald lawns. Just beyond, across an expanse of pink sand dotted with lush green palms, the ocean rushed at the shore. In a swirl of sparkling turquoise, it inched up onto the beach only to be swept back out to sea. Almost mesmerized by the motion of the water, ebbing and flowing, rising on a high, sweet crest, only to crash and slip away, she realized her relationship with Gary had been like that.

If it was possible to love a man too much, to become totally captivated by the sight and sound of him, then that was how she had loved Gary Pritchard. But what she had felt for him in the beginning had become, at the end, too strong, too consuming, so that when he asked her to marry him, she knew without a moment's doubt that she could never share him with his mistress, the sea. She could never have become a part-time fixture in his life. Like her mother had been in her father's.

She pushed the bell. A chime sounded somewhere in the interior of the house, soft and muted. It died, and she waited, finally deciding, almost with a sense of relief, that no one was home. Before she had a chance to consider what plan to adopt next--leaving a note was out of the question--something furry brushed against her. With a small gasp, she looked down to find a fat orange and white striped cat looking up at her.

"Where did you come from?" she said aloud.

The cat examined Marilee, then strolled languorously to the door, where it stretched its front paws against the polished mahogany.

Surprised to find so tame an animal on the premises--a pair of Great Danes would have seemed more appropriate for the Gary Pritchard she remembered--Marilee said, "Don't tell me you belong here!"

"He doesn't. I gave him a hand-out once or twice and I haven't been able to get rid of him since. I call him Cat." The voice that came from directly behind Marilee was low and husky, familiar, and intensely masculine, like its owner. She straightened up and turned in that direction.

"Lee."

Except for the deeper lines etched into his brow and along the sides of his mouth, he had, in her view, changed very little. At thirty-two, he was still slim where it counted, the muscles finely toned in his long legs and upper arms. Dark hair fell carelessly in thick waves to frame his face, and his blue eyes were exactly as she remembered them, alive with a curiosity and zest for living that had once made him the most exciting man she had ever met.

"Hello, Gary." Her heartbeat shifted into high gear. She took a series of deep breaths. In, out, in, out, like a do-it-yourself mouth-to-mouth resuscitation.

He took a half step toward her, then drew back. "Well." He sounded uncertain, which heightened Marilee's own nervousness.

"How are you, Gary?" There, she had managed to say his name twice without sounding like a breathy ingenue.

"Right this minute, surprised would be an understatement." After a moment, the uncertainty disappeared from his voice. "You look wonderful, Lee."

"You look well, too." It was her turn to understate. Dressed in denim cut-offs and navy blue tank top, he looked as vital, tanned and handsome as ever.

"I had no idea you were here on Eleuthera." A tiny smile flirted with the corners of his lips.

"I'm on temporary leave from my job." The cat brushed against Marilee, then leaped to its adopted owner, rubbing against his legs.

"Computers, isn't it?"

"Yes." Had her father told him that? Or had he asked about her? She wondered what else he knew of her life. "I'm with Visions Unlimited. I help businesses develop networking systems, use new software."

"You're a teacher. That's a good career for you, Lee."

"What makes you say that?" She laughed. "Have you pictured me as some outdated stereotype of a teacher, in stout shoes and frumpy dress, my hair pulled into a bun?"

"Hardly. And it would be a shame to hide that hair." His smile softened his rugged features. "But it's conservative, and predictable."

"Not the kind of work I do." She felt an urge to defend herself. "My territory takes in three states. I could be in San Diego one day and Seattle the next. There are times I have to catch a flight on less than four hours' notice. It's hectic, but it is not predictable."

"I'm glad." He smiled more broadly this time. "You've changed, then. That's good."

Oh, he was going to make this very difficult. Why had she allowed herself to hope otherwise? "I have less than a month left to sort out Dad's affairs. The business is in terrible shape. I... I suppose you heard."

He nodded, genuine sorrow flicking to the surface of his eyes. "I'm sorry, Lee. He was a good friend--the best--and I'll miss him. I was in Miami when he died. I didn't find out about it until last week."

He pushed open the door and reached toward her.

Her first instinct was to back away, but before she could act on the impulse, his long fingers brushed her arm. With the slightest pressure he guided her into the cool interior of the house.

"I appreciate your driving all this way to tell me."

Guilt washed over her momentarily, and she followed him into a large living room, but its simple beauty failed to register on her. Rattan chairs, glass topped tables, recessed lighting, woven straw rug, made only fleeting impressions. Her conscious mind was filled with the man, not his surroundings, and also of the fact that she was disturbed he could still have such an effect on her. On the drive down to his house, she felt convinced she had made peace with herself over Gary. Now, she wasn't so sure.

"Can I get you something? Club soda or coffee? I'm afraid that's all I can offer you just now."

She shook her head. How could she admit she had come, not to share her grief with him, but to offer him a proposition, yacht owner to yacht owner: that she had, in essence, materialized on his doorstep to offer him a job? "Gary... I..." She turned toward the tall sheets of glass that formed the side wall of the room. "I like your view." She wished again that she didn't need his help.

"I like the one I’m looking at." He came up behind her, and she felt vulnerable again, wished she hadn't come rushing down there wearing her yellow terry cloth shorts and top, as if she were still eighteen. Brief hot-weather clothes were usually all she had ever worn when she visited her father there. But now, at twenty-six, their encounter was to be strictly business. Had to be. But, with the mere sight of him warming her face and turning her hands clammy, surely that was merely wishful thinking.