Excerpt

A Book Preview – Part I (of 8 parts) The First 6 Chapters (of 40 chapters)

An Extra Virgin Pressing Murder

Candida Martinelli

Copyright © 2003 Candida Martinelli
All rights reserved

Table of Contents

Part I Sunday: Friends and Family / Domenica: amici e famiglia
Part II Monday: Murder / Lunedí: omicidio
Part III Tuesday: Suspicious Fiancé / Martedí: fidanzato sospetto
Part IV Wednesday: Secrets and Lies / Mercoledí: segreti e bugie
Part V Thursday: Emotional Quakes / Giovedí: scosse emozionali
Part VI Friday: Greed and Grudges / Venerdí: aviditá e vendetta
Part VII Saturday: Trapped / Sabato: intrappolato
Part VIII Sunday: New Friends / Domenica: nuovi amici

Map of Laura’s Property

map

Part I Sunday: Friends and Family / Domenica: amici e famiglia

Chapter One

“Breakfast.” The young woman pointed to the breakfast tray. She walked gracefully across the room and set it on a table near the open window. Then she turned and smiled at Julie.

“Thank you.” Julie Fahey smiled back, wondering if she was supposed to offer a tip.

The young woman went gracefully back to the door, turned to look at Julie once more with a practiced smile, and then left. Julie laughed to herself. She supposed the young woman was just being dramatic about delivering the breakfast and speaking one of the few words of English she knew. In the two days she had been in Italy, Julie had already grown to appreciate the seemingly innate talent Italians had for drama. Even the most mundane things were done with panache.

Trying to imitate a bit of Italian style, Julie adjusted her bathrobe, tightened the sash to accentuate her waistline, and then walked gracefully to the marble-topped dressing table. She pulled a brush through her gray hair, but laughed as she caught sight of her reflection in the ornate mirror. Looking back at her was not a young Italian beauty, but a mature woman about whom nothing was dramatic.

Julie went to her hotel room window to check that the Campo, the central square of Siena, Italy, was still out there. She saw the same view that had taken her breath away the day before, but something was different. The Renaissance buildings were still there, plain, and majestic. The sloping paving stones still guided the eye around the oddly shaped space. The town hall still looked welcomingly like a castle, a palace, and a meeting place, all in one. It was the sunlight that was different, Julie decided. The day before, the sun had been overpowering, bleaching all the colors. As the day had waned, the square had begun to look shadowy and mysterious. This morning, the clear light made everything fresh and warm, shining golden on the stones that paved the square and covered the buildings. She was eager to continue her journey to Florence, so Julie reluctantly left the window and hurried through breakfast. Then she prepared for the day ahead and repacked her bags.

Laura Walton appeared eager to depart, too. She arrived, not long after, at Julie’s door. “Good-morning. Sleep well? I’ve taken care of the bill, so we’re all set to go.” Together they collected the last of Julie’s things from the room, then Laura carried the heaviest of Julie’s bags out to the car.

As Julie followed, carrying her other bag, she reflected that Laura had not changed much since her troubled teens. She was the same medium height and build and she still wore her light brown hair long, pulled back from her attractive face. The clothes were certainly different from the teenaged Laura. Now she dressed stylishly, looking more Italian than American the longer she lived in Italy.

As they settled into the car and began their journey Laura said, “You just relax and sleep if you feel tired, Julie. It’s going to take a few days to adjust to the time difference.”

“I’ve not traveled much, so I’m not used to jetlag.”

“Trust me, you never get used to it! We’ll stop for lunch in San Gimignano. My friends are meeting us there. They’re looking forward to meeting you.”

“But your fiancé won’t be there?” Julie wondered about the young man’s absence.

“No, you’ll have a chance to meet him and his family, tonight, at their place for dinner. He’s very busy with his work these days.” Laura said hesitantly, “I thought it would be nice to see each other alone, first. To catch up.” She added as an afterthought, “and to get over the jetlag.”

Julie suspected there was another reason Laura did not want her to meet her future husband right away, but Julie had no idea what that reason could be. “You didn’t tell me much about Tommaso in your letters. There was something about a fabric factory. What does he do for work?”

“He’s the Marketing Director of his family’s textile firm.” Laura sounded nervous as she explained. “Tommaso’s very good at his job. It suits his character. You’ll see what I mean, tonight. He has to travel some for the work, but not too much. I’ve not seen him lately because of our work, and stress, and planning everything. I haven’t wanted to see him.” Laura hurried to clarify why she would not want to see her fiancé. “I mean that I needed to concentrate to finish the first draft of the new book so I could have some time off. It’s at my publishers, now. Archeology this time, in Tuscany. I wanted to get my work done so I wouldn’t have any worries when you got here.”

“Or during the wedding and honeymoon?”

“Yes, that too, of course!” Laura laughed at her oversight.

It was not like her friend to ramble on like that, thought Julie. Perhaps it was love? Perhaps it was nerves? The wedding invitation had come as a welcome surprise. Adjusting to her new life in a retirement community was turning out to be more difficult than Julie could have imagined. Who would have thought that moving just sixty minutes from San Francisco would turn out to require so much adjustment? She felt as foreign there as she did in Italy, and if that were the case, she preferred to be in Italy!

“I thought you wanted to travel more after retiring. Is your new home too comfortable?”

Julie said with disappointment, “Quite the opposite, really. It’s not turned out as I’d hoped.”

“Then travel more!” Laura seemed oddly cheered by the news of Julie’s uncomfortable new home. “You’re always welcome here! I have plenty of room and I’d love your company.”

“Thank you, Laura, but the last thing you want after getting married is a houseguest hanging around!”

“You’re wrong about that.” She said seriously, “I really would love your company and I could use some advice-.” Laura cut short her sentence and hurried on to another thought. “Besides, the property is very large. You’d never be underfoot. I know you like privacy, just as I do. I bought this place because it has room to get lost from the world!”

“You wanted to get lost from the world? I find that hard to believe, my globe-trotting friend!” Julie took a closer look at Laura. She had changed since they had last seen each other in San Francisco. In a few years, Laura had gained a more mature expression about the eyes and mouth.

“It was time to settle down. I didn’t write you about this, but my health had started to suffer from the stress of the newspaper and magazine work. Too much travel, I suppose, and bad diet, and no personal life to speak of. It took its toll! So, I arranged two book deals and rented an apartment in Florence. I thought it would do me good to stay in one place for a while.”

“And did it?” Julie was worried. Laura had suffered during the past few years but she had said nothing about it to Julie. Distance had made them lose the thread that had kept them together for so many years. Julie hoped this visit was a chance to fix that.

“It did me good, for a while. I made some close friendships, met some interesting people, wrote the two books, and built up contacts with higher paying magazines for feature work. Then I started to suffer from the pollution in Florence and the stress of city living.”

“Why didn’t you tell me any of this before, Laura?”

“I didn’t want you to worry,” she added vaguely, “and there were things I had to sort out for myself. You’ve done so much for me over the years.” Laura paused and then said, “You know, Julie, you’ve been more a mother to me than my own ever was. I don’t know if I’ve ever thanked you properly for that. I want to thank you now, from the bottom of my heart.”

Julie’s heart was warmed by the gratitude. “It’s been my pleasure, Laura, but I feel like I’ve let you down these last few years. I wish you’d told me what you were going through. It’s all because of that family of yours. I just know it is!” Julie was unable to control the anger she felt about Laura’s neglectful relations.

Laura said calmly, “I can’t blame them for everything, but you’re probably right, in a way. I pushed hard to get away from them and probably pushed myself into these health problems. But I’m doing better, now! I promise! I bought this property because it was quiet, healthy, self-supporting with the tourist cottages on it and it’s given me a sense of belonging to a community. I’ve never felt that before, and I like it! I’ve arranged two more book deals and I have my other writing work. The first paying guests arrive in a month. Everything’s going fine!”

Julie thought Laura sounded less than confident when insisting that ‘everything’ was fine and there was no mention of her fiancé in the list of good things in her life. Was that an oversight? Julie had been fighting a heavy feeling in her eyes for the last few minutes. She decided to rest them a moment as she wondered about what the very private Laura was not telling her. She closed her eyes on flowing yellow and brown landscapes and reopened them on green landscapes.

“We’re almost at San Gimignano. You can see the town on top of the hill.” Laura pointed to a wall in the distance punctuated by many towers. “How are you holding up, Julie?”

“Just fine. I’m enjoying the scenery.” Julie thought the trip from Siena had seemed very short. “Have I dozed off?”

Laura laughed and said, “A bit, but I’ll take it as a complement to my driving.” Laura concentrated on the road ahead of them. It led all the way up the steep hillside through terraced olive groves and vineyards to the town above.

Julie had awakened with a strong feeling of concern about Laura and her future husband. “You don’t mind my being curious about your fiancé, do you Laura?” She watched Laura’s reactions closely.

“Mind? I’d be disappointed if you weren’t curious!” Laura’s smile changed into an anxious expression. “Why do you think I invited you to come over early? I want your opinion of Tommaso. I trust your opinion.” She paused to concentrate on a blind curve.

Laura needed Julie’s opinion of Tommaso? That was not like Laura. She had always made important decisions in her life on her own. “Do your friends get along with Tommaso?” Julie took the silence that greeted her question as an answer.

“I’m sorry, the road needed my attention,” Laura said nervously. “What did you ask? Oh, about my friends and Tommaso.” Julie suspected Laura’s nervousness was not because of the dangerous road. “They’re very different. My friends are married couples and older than Tommaso.”

“Older than Tommaso? Older than you, too?”

“Yes, that’s what I meant. Tommaso and I are the same age, but I get along well with older people. I like mature people. Tommaso does too, I’m sure, and he’s mature!” It was not like Laura, the writer, to stumble over her words. “I mean,” Laura sighed, “they haven’t known him for very long, or me for very long, actually. I trust your opinion more than theirs.”

Julie watched the road, the tress, and the vineyards they passed as their car climbed the mountain, but her mind was on Tommaso and Laura. Laura was having doubts. That was normal. At least, Julie thought that was normal. She had never married. Julie was expected to judge a man on a few social get-togethers during the weeks before the wedding. She would do her best, but Julie hoped that before the wedding Laura would find the answers she was looking for inside her own heart.

Chapter Two

Laura parked her car outside San Gimignano’s walls and then led Julie into the town through an ancient stone gateway. They followed the winding streets to the main square where they joined Laura’s friends at an outdoor café. Laura made the introductions. “Miss Julie Fahey, I’d like you to meet Greg Whitehorse and his wife Cecilia, and Aldo and Donatella Bianchi. Julie likes to be called Julie.” Laura’s friends greeted Julie warmly and had her sit down with them, careful to find her a place in the shade under the large umbrella over their table.

Greg Whitehorse hailed the waiter and spoke to him in Italian. Then he turned to Julie and said in British-accented English, “I asked him to bring two glasses of freshly squeezed orange juice for you and Laura.” Greg pointed to the towers looming over the main square and asked, “Julie, have you noticed all the towers attached to the houses? San Gimignano is famous for them. A family could hide away in one of those towers for weeks if a clan war broke out. Imagine you and Laura hiding out in a tower for weeks against an enemy family!”

Julie guessed Greg was about forty-five years old. His body seemed too tall and too thin for the cane chair in which he was sitting. Greg’s features were long and thin, perfectly suited to his body. His hair was light and turning gray.

“What did you think of Siena and Rome?” he asked.

“To be honest,” responded Julie, “my first two days in Italy are just a blur of resting, eating, sightseeing, and more resting. I’m not very good at this long-distance traveling.”

“We went to the Vatican,” Laura reminded Julie.

“I’m afraid I remember it only vaguely, Laura. I do remember being disappointed I couldn’t see the Vatican Libraries.”

Greg practically shouted as he said, “Closed to the lay public! I know. It’s a scandal! At least librarians like ourselves should be able to go in!”

Cecilia Whitehorse explained. “Greg is the director of the British Council Library in Florence. Laura’s a member and she’s even written an article about it.” Cecilia laughed. “That’s how we met!”

Julie liked Cecilia’s warm laugh. Cecilia was much shorter than her husband and enjoyed a full figure. She was dressed stylishly in professional, yet feminine, clothes. Her coloring was darker than her husband’s and she spoke English with a slight Italian accent.

“I’ll give you a personal tour of the library, Julie,” Greg promised. “It will be my pleasure. It’s the least I can do for a colleague. You can take books out via Laura, of course, or we can arrange a membership all your own.”

“For my short stay?”

Before Greg could answer, Cecilia cut in. “After the tour, you and I can go out for lunch and perhaps to a concert, if you’d like?”

“Thank you, I’d love the tour, the lunch, and the concert!” Julie wished her social life were so easy to arrange back home. Usually the effort needed was enough to put her off going out, altogether. The orange juice arrived and it was not orange at all, but deep red in color. Julie sipped it cautiously and was surprised by the intense orange juice flavor. “That’s delicious!”

“A woman with taste!” Donatella Bianchi cheered. “That’s freshly squeezed Sicilian blood oranges, as you call them in English.”

Julie noticed Laura and the others laughing at Donatella’s enthusiastic response to Julie’s verdict on the orange juice. Donatella was colorful not only in her language and enthusiasm for juice. Her clothes were colorful, too. Julie thought they looked tailor made for Donatella’s shapely figure. She was a very fit woman of fifty, or so, Julie guessed.

Donatella pointed out, “Julie didn’t get to say what she thought of Siena. It’s my favorite town in the Chianti area, mainly for the exquisite food!”

Julie thought back to the drive through the Chianti countryside and her first view of Siena on the hilltop. Then she recalled the late afternoon tour of the town with Laura as her guide. “If I ignored the television antennas and the electricity cables, Siena seemed like a town time forgot. I could have been back in the Renaissance!”

When the waiter passed their table, Donatella spoke to him in Italian and then hurried him back inside the café. “I’ve asked for chocolates from a local producer. I told him it was for our special guest, our American friend’s mother visiting Italy for the first time. A white lie.” She waved aside Julie’s protest and Laura’s anxious look. “I told him we had to show the Americans what Italians do best, make great food and drink! Have you tried the coffee? It’ll cure your jetlag. It’s from Trieste. Smooth, but strong. I’ve ordered another for myself and one for you.”

Julie was not a coffee drinker but the way Donatella spoke of it, she could not resist. The waiter returned at that moment with the chocolates and the coffees. Donatella instructed, “Take a small taste without sugar first, just to get the real coffee flavor.” Julie thought the first sip was bitter but with such a delicious aftertaste that she almost decided not to sweeten it. “Now add one and an half teaspoonfuls of sugar and stir the coffee three times.” Julie did as she was told. “We drink!” Donatella and Julie drank the coffee down in one go.

“Heavenly!” Julie exclaimed. “Coffee candy!”

“One more time, just to get that sweet bit at the bottom of the cup,” Donatella commanded. The two women tipped their cups again.

This time, coffee syrup drizzled onto Julie’s tongue. She smiled and said, “That was wonderful!”

Laura laughed. “Donatella, you’ve discovered Julie’s weakness. She has a sweet tooth. Julie, if the coffee doesn’t perk you up, the sugar certainly will!”

Donatella smiled with pleasure, her grin covering nearly the whole width of her round face. “We’ll have fun in Florence, Julie! I’ll take you on a personal tour of my favorite pastry shop. I’ll have you sample all the local specialties!” Donatella pushed back her short dark hair, picked up the dish of chocolates and proceeded to describe each one’s filling from memory. She insisted Julie taste at least three, even if she did not finish them. It was a chocolate tasting, she said. Julie had no trouble finishing the chocolates. They were as delicious as the coffee.

The others seemed to find Donatella’s intensity amusing, especially her husband, noted Julie. Aldo Bianchi said with pride, “My wife is a food historian, Julie.” In answer to her blank look, he explained in his deep voice. “It’s a specialist study at the University. Donatella teaches there and she’s authored several books on medieval and Renaissance food and cooking. She writes restaurant reviews and articles about food and cooking for the regional newspaper, too.”

Aldo’s Italian accent when he spoke English was strong, but charming, thought Julie. He was no taller than Julie, and plain and average in all physical characteristics, but striking in the intellectual energy that emanated from him. He had a permanently intense expression on his face and in his eyes. Aldo wore his dark hair a bit long and had a habit of brushing it from his eyes with his hand. Julie guessed he was close to fifty years old.

“A food historian. That’s wonderful!” Julie really was amazed. She had never before met a food historian. She had not even known they existed!

“That’s how we met.” Laura indicated Donatella as she spoke. “I was researching some things for an article I was writing on Florentine cooking, so I consulted Donatella at the University.”

“The rest is history!” Donatella glanced around the table to see who was still eating or drinking. “Hurry up! I’ve arranged two tours.”

Donatella had spoken, so everyone acted. They finished their drinks and Cecilia called the waiter over. They paid the bill and within minutes they were trailing behind Donatella through the streets of San Gimignano.

Julie was walking next to Cecilia and decided to take the opportunity to ask what she had been wondering since meeting Cecilia and her husband, Greg. “I hope you don’t mind my asking, but I believe you’re Italian and your husband is English. Did you meet in Italy?”

“Oh, I don’t mind your asking!” Cecilia sounded like she was actually pleased by Julie’s curiosity. “I was a teacher when I met Greg. I brought my students to his library to encourage them to read more in English. We actually had a very traditional courtship, and then became engaged, and later married. My family was shocked!”

“Because he was English?” Julie became anxious for Laura and her future in-laws.

Cecilia corrected her. “No, because they had written me off as an old maid! I was over forty when I married, just five years ago.”

“My family wrote me off as an old maid when I was younger than that!” Despite the time that had passed, Julie was unable to make light of this fact. “They said I was too independent minded and liked to study too much, so I would never make a good wife or mother.”

“Hmm, that sounds familiar. It seems that between the two of us, there is no generational gap, as I think it’s called. Laura said you’d never married. I hope that wasn’t because of what your parents said.”

“No, not really. When I was young, I was more interested in studying and getting a fun job. I became a civilian archivist for the military. In those days, you either worked or you married, but you did not do both. Later, times changed and we women were told we could do both, but by then I was working in high-school libraries and was many years older. It just never happened.”

“I’m sure that just like me,” Cecilia hesitated as if she did not want to finish the sentence, then finally said, “when I was teaching, you mentored many young people like Laura.”

“I mentored many young people but none like Laura.” Julie wondered how much Cecilia knew of Laura’s past? Laura was a private person. Julie did not want to betray her friend’s confidences. She decided to keep her answer more general than specific. “Her home life was difficult, so she spent much of her free time in the library. Then she left home at seventeen, as soon as she’d graduated from high school, and I helped her apply to University and for financial assistance. I tried to encourage her during those difficult years. Later, I shared in her successes as her career started and took off. It created a bond between us.”

“Like a mother,” said Cecilia.

“I don’t know about that, especially these last years! It seems I’ve lost touch with what’s happened in Laura’s life. I didn’t know she’d been ill.” The guilt and worry Julie was feeling was difficult to keep out of her voice.

“It was nerves more than anything else.” Cecilia sounded concerned, too. “Laura pushes herself so hard. She just had to slow down and take better care of herself. She’s much better now.”

Julie decided it was a good time to find out what Cecilia thought of Laura’s fiancé. “Do you think this young man will be good for Laura?”

Cecilia did not answer right away and when she did answer, she chose her words carefully. “Tommaso is a Bartolini. They’re a well-known family in Florence. He’s the oldest of three sons. Not many Italian men would consider marrying a foreign woman, especially such a successful woman. Even the young Italian men can be very traditional when it comes to marriage.” She shrugged and said, “To be honest, Julie, I don’t know him well enough to answer your question. I wish I did, for Laura’s sake.”

Julie did not find that very encouraging. Then she remembered something Laura had said that morning. “Laura said Tommaso has some difficulty socializing with people older than himself.”

“Laura said that?” Cecilia sounded surprised. “That she’s admitted it!” She looked appraisingly at Julie. “I think you’ve a good influence on Laura, a motherly influence.” Cecilia explained cautiously, “Italians like to mix with people just like themselves or with people who have similar interests. It makes it difficult for people in mixed marriages, like Greg and I, to make friends. Tommaso is normal, I suppose.” She smiled. “Laura is exceptional, that’s why we’re so fond of her. She’s strong enough to have friends who are different from her. She’s curious, open and self-confident. Above all else, she’s honest and not envious, which are qualities I have a hard time finding in Italian women. Donatella, of course, is an exception!” Cecilia laughed her pleasant laugh.

“So Tommaso’s friends may not accept Laura, you mean?” Cecilia had also suggested that Tommaso was not curious, open and self-confident. Julie wondered if Cecilia had been this open with Laura about Tommaso Bartolini? She wondered, too, if Cecilia wanted Julie to use her motherly influence to point out these things to Laura?

“I don’t think Laura socializes at all with Tommaso’s friends, to be honest.” Cecilia stopped there because they had arrived at a pottery factory for their first tour. Cecilia left Julie with a less than favorable impression of Laura’s future husband.

Donatella’s exceptional nature was evident in how she dealt with the potters. She explained their work better than they could have done and commanded the potters to demonstrate their craft. Julie noted that Donatella’s manner gave one the feeling that arguing with her would be useless because she would be oblivious to any dissension. After the exhibition, Donatella thanked the potters and praised them as fellow professionals and artisans continuing ancient Italian traditions. This exuberant appreciation mended all their wounded pride. When Donatella purchased several of their antique replica items and asked if she could write about their products for a column in the regional paper, she was forgiven all her exigency. After the purchases were wrapped and the group was leaving, the owner of the factory pushed a small dish on Donatella as a gift from the shop.

Once out the door, Donatella handed the dish to Julie, having her put it discretely into her purse, so the still watching, waving, and smiling owner would not see. “A souvenir,” she whispered. Donatella had them regroup along the narrow street and then led them off in the direction of a winery and restaurant for a tour and a tasting before lunch.

Aldo joined Julie and said in his soothing voice, “My wife lives life by her own rules. That’s how she can be so successful in a career she’s invented for herself. Donatella pays no attention to society telling her she can’t do things. She just does them. Her confidence tells people they’re wrong!”

Julie agreed with him completely. “Your wife’s unique! She’s someone who shapes her society, rather than is shaped by it.”

“Yes, you understand!” Aldo smiled.

The smile was so unlike his wife’s ready and ample smile that Julie stared. Aldo’s smile seemed rusty and it looked out of place on his serious face. No one could overhear them, so Julie decided to risk some questions. “You seem to understand people very well, Aldo. What do you think of Laura’s fiancé? I don’t want to interfere in Laura’s life, but I’m curious about the man she’s to marry. I don’t want her to rush into anything, especially with her health only just improving.”

Aldo remained silent and studied Julie. Finally, he said, “Not only do you look the part, but you sound like Laura’s mother.” He mused on this in silence, seemingly too occupied with his own thoughts to continue their conversation.

Julie was surprised by his reaction. Laura’s mother? What was this preoccupation with Julie’s mothering relationship with Laura? It took her a moment to realize that Aldo had avoided answering her question about Tommaso, which only increased Julie’s doubts about the young man.

Chapter Three

Laura whispered to Julie, “I saw you speaking to Aldo earlier. That can be a difficult experience.”

Julie had finished eating her lunch and felt light-headed from the bubbly white wine they had drunk with the meal. It had gone down very easily. She looked at Laura with surprise. “It’s so strange to be sitting here next to you, in Italy!”

“It’s been too long. I know. I tried to write regularly but I just didn’t feel up to traveling or calling.” Laura sounded embarrassed by her ill health.

“We’re together now, Laura.” Julie felt she was sitting next to an older and wiser Laura. She thought the maturity suited her friend. “Talking to Aldo was an interesting experience. He doesn’t answer questions, does he?”

“No, he doesn’t answer questions.” Laura whispered her comments so the others could not overhear them through their own chatter. “Aldo’s a psychoanalyst. They never answer questions. They only ask them! But now and then, he does offer wonderful advice. He’s helped me during these past two years.” Laura smiled and looked fondly at her friends seated around the table. “Aldo and Donatella make an interesting couple, don’t you think? Aldo intellectualizes everything and Donatella lives in the moment. Aldo distances his emotions and Donatella lives by them. I’ve always thought that Donatella is Aldo’s link to life. That without her, he would be very isolated and completely absorbed in his work.”

Julie and Laura watched the couple a moment. Then Julie suggested, “They compliment each other. Without Aldo, perhaps Donatella would live too much in the moment and not make any plans for the future, or not reflect on where she’s been? Perhaps he helps her appreciate her accomplishments?”

“I think you’re right. They complement each other. By the way, I forgot to warn you that it’s best not to mention children when talking with them. They have some problems with their son. I’ll explain later.”

Julie found Laura to be just as perceptive as she had remembered. Even as a teenager, Laura had seemed to know intuitively that something was very wrong with her family. She had understood that she had to leave them if she was to make anything of her own life and she had found the courage to do that. However, the price was solitude and having to rely solely on herself. Now Laura was going to marry into a new family. Was it going to be any better than the one into which she had been born? Would Tommaso Bartolini give her the friendship, loyalty and love she deserved? Julie was lost in thought, unaware of the chatter around her.

Cecilia leaned over and said, “Julie, I think your jetlag is coming on. You’re looking tired.”

“It couldn’t be this light wine, could it?” Julie drank the last of the nearly clear liquid in her wine glass.

Greg laughed. “Italian wine is deceptively light! But don’t worry, you’re not driving and you’ll feel better after an espresso.”

The waiter served their coffees right on cue. Julie savored the sugary mixture, imagining she could even taste a difference from the coffee she had drunk earlier that afternoon.

Donatella watched her closely. “You can taste the difference, can’t you? I know you can! That’s wonderful! We’re going to have fun tasting pastries, Julie. You have exceptional taste buds! This is a more bitter coffee. It has a different aftertaste.”

Julie was taken aback by the complement to her taste buds. It was the first she had ever received.

Cecilia reassured her. “That is the highest complement Donatella can give. You should be honored, Julie. Actually, it’s probably the highest complement an Italian can give!” She laughed and smiled at Greg, sharing a private joke with her husband. “Italians value good food much too highly.”

“Never too highly!” Donatella exclaimed, to their amusement.

During these exchanges, Julie had noticed Laura arguing quietly with Aldo. Laura seemed to disagree strongly with something Aldo had suggested. He had indicated Julie more than once.

Aldo turned to speak to the group. “I’d like to propose a brindisi, a toast, to Julie. She’s been the mother Laura deserved but nature did not give her.” He raised his glass and was quickly joined by the others, Laura included.

Julie was surprised. Could that have been what they were arguing about? “Thank you, I don’t know what to say. I’ve just tried to be a friend.”

Aldo continued. “You succeeded with Laura where even the most loving parents fail.” He glanced at his wife.

“Laura’s the one who’s succeeded.” Julie spoke with conviction. The wine no longer clouded her mind.

Donatella said, “That’s because she has very good qualities, like her self-discipline. You can’t always teach that to a child.”

Julie noticed that Donatella directed her comment to her husband. Julie suspected they were not talking about Laura, but were most likely referring to their own troubled son.

Greg said, “It’s a shame the Bartolinis won’t be able to appreciate all that Laura has overcome in her life.”

“Why won’t they?” Julie looked to Laura for an explanation, but Laura remained silent and avoided meeting Julie’s eye. Julie thought her friend looked uncomfortable with the conversation Aldo had started and her friends were continuing.

“This is a traditional society,” Greg explained. “Trust is family based. Family is what matters. Laura is not Italian and that is a handicap. It’s a double disadvantage that her family in America isn’t admirable. I know all this from experience.” He glanced at his wife.

Cecilia explained. “What Greg is saying is that if Laura tells the Bartolinis about her real family, they’ll assume she’ll succumb to their same faults. They’ll think less of her.”

Julie did not like what she was hearing. “Think less of her? They should think more of her!”

Everyone at the table looked to Laura to explain. Reluctantly, she said, “I’ve always looked at marriage as a second chance at a family. I’m probably one of the few people who’s looked forward to having in-laws!” She smiled at Julie. “I hope you can understand, Julie, that I don’t want to ruin that chance by telling the Bartolinis the truth about my family in America.”

“What are you going to tell them?” Julie looked directly at Laura who looked away in embarrassment. “Okay, what have you already told them?”

“Tell her, Laura,” Cecilia encouraged. “She’ll understand. I feel she has your best interests at heart.”

Laura repeated, very quickly, the lies she had told the Bartolinis. “I told them my father passed away several years ago, that I have no brothers or sisters, and that only my mother would be attending the wedding.”

“Your mother? Did you tell your fiancé this story, too?” Laura nodded in answer to Julie’s question.

Donatella spoke to the waiter, ordering things from the dessert menu and another coffee for herself. Then she turned back to the group and put in her two cents worth. “What’s the big deal? Julie plays your mother. Laura’s happy. The Bartolinis are happy. Everyone’s happy. I’ve ordered some local specialties for dessert.”

It was all settled in Donatella’s mind, observed Julie: Julie’s new identity and dessert. That was not necessarily in order of Donatella’s priority. It was not settled in Julie’s mind. “I’m to pretend to be your mother?” Julie looked at the smiling faces around the table. Now she understood why Laura had arranged for her to meet her friends before meeting her fiancé. Her friends were there to help convince Julie to play Laura’s mother! That was why Donatella, Cecilia and Aldo had mentioned her being like a mother to Laura, and why Greg had imagined them cowering in a family tower together. They were softening her up for this moment! That was what Aldo had been arguing about with Laura only moments before. He thought Laura should go ahead and ask the favor but Laura had disagreed, perhaps having second thoughts about the deception.

“Oh, it’ll be fun!” Cecilia encouraged her.

“You even look a bit alike.” Greg nodded seriously as he studied their faces.

“What’s a white lie when Laura’s happiness is at stake?”

Aldo’s comment hit the hardest. Laura’s happiness had always been important to Julie. That was why she had befriended the unhappy girl all those years ago. Julie’s resistance was fading. She said tentatively, “Maybe.”

“Everyone’s happy!” Donatella could have been speaking of the desserts that had arrived at the table, but Julie suspected she was trying to seal the deal between Julie and Laura.

“I said, maybe.” Julie decided this was the best moment to get these people to answer some of her questions. It did not matter to her that Laura was present. Julie thought it important for them to be open and honest with Laura. “Before I agree to anything, I want to be sure you think this young man is right for Laura.” No one spoke up for Tommaso Bartolini. Julie saw Laura look at her friends in increasing agitation.

Eventually, Cecilia said, “He comes from a very old Tuscan family. They’re very well off. His mother runs the business and is the head of the family since her husband died, around five years ago. It’s a good match.” She nudged Greg.

Greg took up the defense of Laura’s fiancé. “They’ve all had excellent educations and all the advantages money could buy. The mother runs the business well and keeps a firm hand on it and on her sons.”

Donatella was busy serving the desserts but she contributed her part. “They’re very active with charities and the big social clubs in Florence. I always consult on their club dinners and parties. I know the mother, Sandra Bartolini, and I like her very much.”

Aldo spoke last and least to the point. “I think it’s revealing that Julie has asked just the question a mother would ask. Is he good enough for my daughter? Very revealing.” He nodded significantly. “The mother, Sandra Bartolini, was married to a very domineering man. After he died a few years ago, it was clear she had kept her own character. There are not many women at her level in business in Italy. She’s very fond of Laura and has accepted her into the family with open arms.”

Julie was disappointed and worried that they had all found words to praise Tommaso’s mother and none to praise him. She looked at Laura and saw that this omission was causing her distress. Without hesitation, Julie said, “I’ll do it.” A sigh of relief circled the table, followed by comments about how they knew she would not let Laura down. Julie had agreed mainly to spare Laura any more pain, but she was not reassured about the young man Laura wanted to marry. Now that she had agreed to the request, Julie wanted to set some conditions. “But I’ll use my own name.”

“That’s easy!” Donatella cried out. “Just say you switched back to your name after your husband died.” They all thought this a good idea.

“Alright, but don’t expect me to pretend to be a traditional parent, like mine were. I could never manage acting a part.”

“No, I don’t want anything like that!” Laura assured her. “I want them to meet the woman who has been like a mother to me. I want them to meet you as you are.”

“Good. The other condition is this, Laura. I want you to consider telling Tommaso the truth. If he loves you and is the man for you, he’ll want you no matter what your family’s like. I wouldn’t want your married life to start out with such a big lie between you.” There was general agreement among Laura’s friends to the wisdom of Julie’s request.

Laura said, “You’re right. I’ll tell Tommaso soon, before the wedding, but not tonight. When it feels right, I’ll tell him. I promise.” The conviction was lacking in Laura’s voice, which, Julie suspected, upset Laura as much as it disappointed Julie.

Chapter Four

Julie awoke with a jolt as their car came to a sudden stop.

“I’m sorry, Julie! There’s an accident in town.” Laura pointed to the square at the center of a small town. Two damaged cars were in the process of being pushed out of the way of traffic. “There’re lots of accidents in Italy. They all think they’re Formula One drivers,” Laura said with a shake of her head. “This is Montemorello! We’re almost to my place. It’s just outside town.”

The town of Montemorello sat on top of the mountain for which it was named. Julie saw that the central street was lined with shops, cafes, and a few offices. Off either side of the main street, Julie noticed narrow lanes winding their way between stone houses that were seemingly piled on top of each other. “It’s lovely.”

“That’s our Marshal, Massimo Novelli.” Laura pointed out a man in a dark uniform directing the efforts up ahead. “Sounds like the Wild West, doesn’t it? I suppose in America he’d be called the Sheriff, which sounds even wilder!”

Julie thought Marshal Novelli perfectly cast for his role, especially in his distinguished uniform. He was a man of above average height and muscular build. Julie judged him to be in his early to mid-forties, but it was difficult to say. His body moved with an athlete’s agility, but his dark hair looked like it was turning gray. “He’s very attractive.”

Laura blushed slightly. “I suppose so. He’s excellent at his job! Cleaned up the town, you could say.”

“Your Marshal Novelli looks very serious. I wonder if anyone was hurt in the accident?”

“He always looks serious. Well, not always.” Julie waited for Laura to explain her quick change in opinion concerning the Marshal. After a moment’s hesitation, she did. “I went to see him in his office when I was considering buying this property. I wanted to find out what the area was like and to see if he could recommend a couple to hire as caretakers. I ended up talking with him for over two hours! He’s a very intelligent and charming man. I wondered, at first, if there was more to his interest than a professional one, but after I moved here, he seemed distant and serious. I even thought, for a while, that he was avoiding me!” She shook her head and said with a laugh, “A bit too much ego on my part, I suppose.”

“Maybe he’s married.”

“Widower, with a teenaged daughter. She seems very sweet. She’s a bit shy, but I imagine she’ll grow out of that.”

“He recommended this couple who live with you?” Julie was curious about the caretakers. Laura had written to her about them and they sounded too good to be true.

“Monica and Paolo Cecchi. Yes, the Marshal recommended them. I’m very lucky to have them helping me. Paolo’s worked with him to make my property very secure. We’re as safe as in a vault!”

“He worked with the Marshal?” Julie looked again at the man commanding the situation in the square.

“He recommended all sorts of things to Paolo and I agreed to every one of them. I’m a woman living alone on a private estate, so it’s only common sense. I want my guests to feel safe, too. It was the Marshal and the Cecchis who were the deciding factors in my buying this place and I’m not sorry I bought it.” Laura waived to Marshal Novelli as he signaled they could proceed past the wreckage. He waived back, smiling as he recognized Laura. His gazed rested on Julie for a second before he turned back to mediate between two men arguing loudly. “Those must be the drivers of the cars. No one was hurt,” Laura said with relief.

Laura drove a short distance away from the town then stopped her car in front of a high gate. She opened it with a remote control. “There are garages for the guests further along the road. I have a garage near the main house. That’s Paolo and Monica Cecchi’s place here on the left, just inside the gate.” The two story stone house was mostly hidden from view by ivy and creeping vines. “In the pictures I sent you, the property probably looked very flat, but the estate actually sits on four terraces cut into the south side of the mountain.” They drove past a large vegetable patch. Then they took a steep decline to reach the second terrace, which was covered in fruit and nut trees. Laura stopped the car on the third terrace in front of a garage. To their left was the main house nestled in a formal garden.

Julie got out of the car and stretched her legs. She caught sight of the fourth terrace below the house. Actually, she saw only the tips of silver-leafed trees and the running lines of grape vines extended over a grid of wire supports. Julie took a deep breath of the sweet mountain air. “It’s beautiful, Laura.” Julie had always suspected it was the traditional character of Italian life that had convinced Laura to settle in Italy, but seeing the property Laura had purchased convinced Julie that this had been the deciding factor.

“I want you to feel like you’re on vacation.” Laura paused to pick up the heavier of Julie’s suitcases. “There’ll be parties and guests dropping by, so I thought you might prefer to stay in one of the guest cottages.”

“That’s fine.” Julie suspected the guests dropping by would be mainly Tommaso, so she appreciated Laura’s discretion. Julie collected her other bag and followed Laura up through the fruit and nut orchard on the second terrace. From there, they passed through an opening in a stone wall to the first terrace. They came out into an area where four buildings were grouped around a swimming pool. Any exhaustion Julie was suffering disappeared when she caught sight of the sparkling pool and the cottage where she would be staying the next few weeks.

After Laura had explained how everything in the cottage worked and what supplies she had put in the kitchen, she left Julie to settle in on her own. Julie took a few moments to admire the well-appointed and tastefully decorated cottage, then she chose the largest of the bedrooms and put away her things. Her energy did not last long, however. When she could resist no longer, Julie crawled between the soft cotton sheets in the generous bed and promptly fell asleep.

After two hours, Julie awoke but remained in bed reflecting on her vivid dreams. She remembered dreaming of homes with towers like in San Gimignano. There were feuding families, too. She and a teenaged Laura were caught in the winding streets as bullets and shouts came from above. Marshal Massimo Novelli was there and he managed to pull them to safety.

Julie laughed. A Marshal saving her from feuding clans was something straight out of America’s past, but Marshal Massimo Novelli did not look like an American officer of the law. His uniform looked more like a military officer’s uniform and his looks were definitely more cultured than the average American Marshal from days gone by. Julie thought it strange that just those few moments in the center of Montemorello had been enough to put the man in her dreams. She decided that he must have made more of an impression on her than she had realized. San Gimignano’s towers had made an impression, too, a frightening impression, thanks to Greg’s stories of family feuds.

Julie freshened up and dressed for her evening at the Bartolinis. Then she headed down to the main house. Julie passed the pool and the other guesthouses and then wandered through the orchard. She entered the formal garden next to Laura’s house and felt her excitement grow as she neared the attractive stone building. It had two generously proportioned stories. Each architectural element was perfectly balanced with every other element.

“Oh, I didn’t see you!” Julie stepped back from the man who stood in the center of the path. “Do you speak English?”

He extended his hand in welcome. His deep voice rumbled out from his barrel chest. “I’m Paolo Cecchi. Please, call me Paolo.” He was a powerfully built man of medium height and at least sixty-five years old. Paolo had lost all the hair on the top of his head and the band of hair that ran along the sides and back was completely gray. Julie thought his eyes were his most striking feature. They were an alert, clear blue that stood out against his weathered skin.

Julie shook his calloused hand. “I’m Julie Fahey. Please, call me Julie.”

“I understand you’re to be Laura’s mother for those people.” Paolo pulled with a finger at the skin under his eye while looking meaningfully at Julie.

Julie guessed that was the Italian equivalent of a wink. Paolo was telling her that he was in on the pretense and would play along. “That’s right. You’re the property manager, aren’t you?” He nodded. “I have to complement you on how wonderful everything looks. The gardens and the houses are so beautifully tended!”

The complement pleased Paolo. He looked around with pride. “It is a lovely place. I’ll show you around as soon as Laura’s ready.” He led her down the path to the main house’s massive, wooden front door. He knocked, then opened it and allowed Julie to enter first.

The whole of the ground floor, that Julie could see, was tiled in glazed terra cotta tiles. A solid looking staircase sat on the right side of the hall, leading to the next floor. There was a door to the left of the stairs that, Julie guessed, led directly to the rooms in the back of the house. To her immediate left was, what looked like, a family room. Comfortable looking armchairs faced a shelving unit that Julie suspected housed the television and other electronic equipment. To her right was a study, the walls lined with well-stocked bookshelves. An antique desk sat at an angle in the front corner.

Laura sat behind the desk and spoke in Italian to someone on the telephone. When she saw Julie and Paolo, she held her hand over the receiver and said, “It’s Tommaso. I’ll be a few minutes. Why don’t you start without me? I’ll catch up.” She smiled encouragingly at Julie then returned to her conversation.

Julie noticed Paolo did not look pleased at the mention of Tommaso Bartolini, or was it because Laura would not join them for the tour? She followed the suddenly taciturn Paolo back outside. Julie wondered if this was one more person who had nothing good to say about the young man Laura was to marry?

Paolo led her through the formal garden, then through a break in the stone wall that separated the third terrace from the fourth terrace. They stepped down into a grove of olive trees, each twisted trunk seemingly alive with individuality. The silvery leaves rustled above them in the evening breeze. Paolo walked along patting each trunk as if greeting old friends. His gravelly voice announced, “We harvest the olives and I press them myself with our own oil press using the original grindstone. I have a spoonful of virgin olive oil every morning. It helps keep me young and healthy. I’ve not been sick one day, for years!” He went on to explain to Julie the history of the trees as if relating the life histories of people he cared about.

Paolo escorted Julie through the vineyard that sat directly below the house. They paused to admire the view of the valley. It was seven o’clock in the evening and the sun had still not set. It sat low on the horizon casting a sharp shadow over the rural landscape. After a few minutes of quiet contemplation, Paolo continued the tour, taking Julie up the mountainside, through the formal garden and past the house. When they entered the orchards, Paolo told her about the varieties of fruit and nut trees that surrounded them.

Suddenly, Paolo stopped talking about the garden and started to talk about himself. “I started life as the son of a farmer who was also a carpenter. I became a farmer and a carpenter, too. Later, I had to take a job with the government to earn enough to feed my family, but now, I’ve come back to the beginning. I’m a farmer and a carpenter, again, and I’m enjoying it very much.”

“Where did you learn to speak English so well?”

“From Americans during the war. My father was a partigiano, a partisan, fighting the Fascists. Many Americans stayed with us. We fed them and gave them protection while they helped us fight. When I was older, I worked for the English who used to live around here and learned more English from them.” He chuckled. “They called me ‘the American’ because of my accent.” Paolo led her to the top terrace and explained as they walked, “Laura’s made a nice home for herself. We’re glad she’s decided to stay.”

“I didn’t know there was any question of that,” said Julie.

“Laura was worried about her health and if the place could be self-supporting. She’s just told me of the contract she’s negotiated with an agency to rent the cottages. We’re fully booked for a year with University professors!” Paolo looked impressed. He laughed and then muttered, “Massimo will be happy about that.”

“Massimo Novelli, the Marshal?”

“Do you know him?” Paolo stopped walking and eyed her with surprise.

“We saw him in the center of town on our way here. Laura pointed him out to me. She said he’s helped make this place very safe.”

“He’s taken an interest in Laura’s well-being since she arrived here.” He smiled slyly and said, “He’s a good man.” Julie thought that sounded like the highest compliment Paolo ever made about another man. “I should go see him, Tuesday. It’s been too long and there are things to tell him, like the guests, and other things. Massimo was worried the guests might cause trouble.”

Julie laughed. “I don’t think University professors will cause a crime wave in Montemorello!”

“No!” Paolo laughed with her. “He was worried they’d cause trouble for Laura.” He looked at Julie very seriously and said, “You don’t have to worry, Julie. We keep Laura safe. She’s safe here and when she has to go out in the evening, to interview some stranger in town, I always drive her. I’m her bodyguard, too.”

Although an older man, Julie could imagine the powerful Paolo striking fear into the heart of many an interview subject. “It does look like Laura has made a good life here. I appreciate everything you do for her, especially to keep her safe. I appreciate what the Marshal has done, too.”

“It’s my pleasure.” As they started walking again, Paolo added under his breath, “Massimo would have my head if I didn’t take good care of Laura!” Then he said, “Laura’s a lovely woman and she’s been a good friend to my wife and I, and to our daughter, Paola. Paola’s a student at the University of Bologna, but she’ll come home soon to visit, then you’ll meet her.”

“To be honest with you, Paolo, I worry most about Laura being alone. She’ll be happier after Tommaso moves in, don’t you think?” It was a sly way of sounding the man out, but Julie knew he had Laura’s interests at heart. She could trust his opinion of Tommaso Bartolini.

“Happier? I don’t know,” he shrugged. “The engagement came as a surprise and then the wedding was announced so soon after.” He shrugged again. Paolo led a disappointed Julie to an old building next to the path. “This is the oil shed where I press our oil.” He looked lovingly at the crumbling walls. “I’ll show you tomorrow, when everyone’s here for the party.”

“There’s a party, here, tomorrow?” Julie had heard nothing about that, or if she had, she had forgotten.

“A welcome party for you, with Laura’s friends and the Bartolinis.” At the mention of the family name, Paolo looked very unhappy. Before Julie could ask why, Paolo had hurried past the oil shed. Julie followed him into a large vegetable patch and heard him call out. “Monica!”

Monica Cecchi was a heavyset woman of about sixty with a cherubic face. She removed her garden gloves and an apron that protected her housedress from dirt. Then she smoothed down her wispy gray hair, pushing the stray strands into a bun at the base of her neck.

Monica smiled a wide, happy smile as she approached Julie. “Hello! You must be Julie, Laura’s pretend mother.” She giggled like a little girl at the joke. “Welcome to Italy and to Montemorello! I’m Monica.” Monica spoke quickly and correctly in English, but with a heavy accent. “Come around this way. I want to show you my pride and joy! It’s a wood oven for baking breads. It’s very old. Paolo fixed it for me when we moved here. I use it every week to make breads we sell to restaurants and caterers. My bread is a specialty!” She hurried Julie to the far corner of the field where she showed off her wood oven with childlike pride, patting it’s rounded top to show it’s solidity, then insisting Julie peer into the cave-like interior.

Julie found Monica’s enthusiasm for primitive baked goods contagious. “Will I get to taste some of the bread? May I watch you baking?” She was sure Donatella would approve. It was then that Julie remembered Cecilia’s words about Italians valuing good food too highly. She decided Cecilia was right about that.

“Of course! I bake early, though.” This seemed to worry Monica until she remembered something. “I’m baking tomorrow for the party!” She turned quickly and pointed to the field she had been tending. “This is the orto. Paolo, how do you say that in English?”

“Vegetable patch.” Paolo had followed them to the wood oven and had watched in amusement as Monica had shown it off to Julie.

“Vegetable patch? Orto is easier. English can be a difficult language!” Monica shook her head in frustration. “When Laura came here, she was always tired, but I fed her lots of fresh vegetables and fruit and nuts and fresh breads.”

“And olive oil,” added Paolo.

“And olive oil. She’s better now, so much stronger! We take good care of your little girl. Don’t worry! But now that you’re here, you can see for yourself. Do you like your new home? Paolo made the cupboards. He’ll make some more so you can have one room as a dressing room, just like he made for Laura.”

“I’m only visiting,” Julie insisted with surprise. “After the wedding, I have to go back to the States.”

“No.” Monica said the word with such finality that Julie started wondering if she really was going back to the States. “Don’t you like it here? Is it better in America? I don’t think so!” Monica did not wait for answers to her questions. “We’ll make your cottage cozy in winter, if that’s what you’re worried about.” Suddenly she said, “You look tired!” Julie felt tired but had been trying to ignore the feeling. “Come with me!”

Julie hurried to keep up with Monica as the woman disappeared around a tall hedge. Beyond the hedge was a tiled veranda that extended out from the front and side of the Cecchi’s home. The doors and windows were all open, letting in the cool evening air. No lights were on in the house, but Julie could make out some furnishings and tiled floors. Paolo disappeared into the kitchen and began preparing something, while Monica had Julie join her at the veranda table.

“I worked for many, many years as a seamstress in a factory near here, and I made clothes for English women who lived around here. That’s how I learned to speak English. I still make clothes. See, there’s my machine!” Monica pointed to a sewing machine in a prominent position in what looked like their living room. “I sew while Paolo watches football!” Monica’s laughter showed how she enjoyed the two hobbies in the same room. “I’ll make some dresses for you for the wedding and for parties.” With a speed that set Julie’s tired head spinning, Monica changed the subject. “Laura says you were a librarian. That’s wonderful!”

Julie found Monica’s praise for librarians heartfelt, if surprising. “I enjoyed my work, especially introducing children to books and ideas.” At the mention of children, Julie thought she noticed a reaction, but was not sure what the reaction meant. It was just a feeling, but Julie listened to her feelings when they were as strong as this one. She decided not to mention children again and to change the subject. Julie indicated the piano against the living room wall and asked, “Do you play the piano, Monica?” Immediately Julie knew she had made another mistake. At the mention of the piano, Monica looked stricken. “I’ve said something to upset you. I’m so sorry.”

“You said nothing wrong.” Monica patted Julie’s hand. “I taught piano for many years to students, including my daughter.”

“Paola?” Julie remembered the name Paolo had mentioned earlier.

“Sí, Paola!” Monica brightened at the mention of her daughter. “She stopped playing the piano and is at University.”

Julie knew it was common for piano students to stop after many years. If there was no hope of a professional career in music, most gave it up. She thought Monica’s disappointment was extreme. “Even if she doesn’t play anymore, I’m sure Paola gained a lot from the years she did study. You ought to think of it that way. You should teach again. I think teaching is the most rewarding profession.”

“Maybe.” Monica looked pensively at the piano in the living room. “I’ll think about it.”

Paolo returned to the terrace with a tray on which was arranged three Italian coffee cups and saucers, a sugar bowl and an Italian coffee maker. Monica served the coffee following, what looked to Julie like, some kind of ritual. She opened the top of the caffetiera and stirred the coffee with a small spoon. Then she poured a bit of coffee into one of the cups and added a spoonful of sugar. She stirred this until it looked like a creamy dessert. Then she poured in more coffee until the creamy foam reached the top of the cup. She handed this to Julie and waited for her to try it before serving out the other two cups of coffee.

Julie drank the bitter coffee through the sweet, creamy foam. The contrast provided a different taste sensation from the coffee she had drunk that afternoon. “For someone who doesn’t normally drink much coffee, I’m certainly making up for lost time, all in one day! This is delicious!”

Monica looked with good-natured pity on the strange woman who lived without coffee. Suddenly, she jumped up and hurried into the living room. Seconds later Monica returned with a beautifully decorated box of chocolates. “I forgot this!” Monica opened it with great flare and presented it first to Julie and then to her husband.

Julie thought the chocolate was disappointing but the presentation was exceptional, something that did not surprise her in this country of natural showmen. It certainly made life more interesting. “Italians are so artistic. This box is stunning.”

“Here you are! I missed the whole tour!” Laura came through the gap in the hedge and joined them at the table. She thanked Paolo for giving Julie the tour and thanked Monica for her hospitality, but declined the offer of coffee and chocolates. After a few minutes, she apologized for their running off. She explained that they did not want to be late. With reluctance, the Cecchis let them go.

As Julie and Laura made their way back to the main house, Julie confided, “I think I said something wrong back there.”

“It couldn’t have been too serious. You’re still alive!” Laura laughed with her friend. “What did you say?”

“I mentioned children and asked if Monica played the piano. She told me about Paola stopping her piano studies. She was very upset about it.”

“It’s understandable, but you couldn’t have known, so don’t worry. Their daughter was going to study at a prestigious music conservatory, but had to give it up because of an injury to her hand. The piano will be gone by next week. It was on loan from a charity.” She turned to face Julie and said with pride, “Cecilia’s charity, actually!” Julie did not know what Laura was talking about, so Laura explained. “She runs a group that provides practice areas, and scholarships, and instruments to young musicians.”

“She didn’t tell me that, only that she used to be a teacher.” Julie thought it odd of Cecilia not to have mentioned her work. They had talked together for some time that afternoon.

“It must have slipped her mind,” said Laura offhandedly.

Julie’s mind, stimulated by the coffee and sugar, was already onto another concern. She was steeling herself for her first meeting with the Bartolinis and her first performance as Laura’s mother. More than anything else, Julie was anxious to meet Tommaso Bartolini, the young man Laura was to marry. Since talking to Laura’s friends and Paolo Cecchi about him, her worries from that morning had only increased.

Chapter Five

Florence by night looked to Julie like a wonder world of illuminated golden stone and ochre-colored buildings. The avant-garde shop windows were lit up and people were everywhere window-shopping, talking in groups, eating and drinking at outdoor restaurants and cafés. Florentines mixed with tourists from around the world that were already flooding Florence. Laura drove her car over a wide bridge that spanned a fast flowing river.

“This is the Arno River. It runs all the way to Pisa and then to the Mediterranean Sea.” Laura pointed to the next bridge up the river. “Do you see that bridge?” She pulled the car into a parking space but left the engine running.

Julie saw buildings running along the illuminated bridge and small windows peeping out from the walls. “It’s beautiful. Are those shops on it?”

“Mainly jewelry shops. That’s the only bridge along this part of the Arno that the Nazis didn’t blow up during the war. They appreciated its history and it’s beauty.” Laura pulled the car out of the parking place and turned onto a road that climbed above the city. “During the early Renaissance, the bridge was home to leather tanners but the Medici family, who ruled Florence, thought the horse urine they used to tan the leather stank too much. Can’t blame them, really, can you?”

“No, not really!” Julie enjoyed Laura’s dry humor. She had enjoyed it years ago when they spoke together each afternoon in the school library and she had enjoyed it through the years in the young woman’s entertaining letters. It was the same humor and appreciation for irony that set Laura’s published writing apart.

Laura continued. “They passed over the smelly bridge every day to get from their palace to the houses of government. Their solution was to raise the taxes so high on the shops that only jewelers could afford to rent them. No more smell!”

“The Bartolinis live on this side of the river?”

“That’s right. We’re almost there.”

“But their fabric factory is not far from your estate, isn’t it?”

“That’s right, too. You remember that from my letters?”

“Yes. Does that mean that they’re as rich and powerful as the Medici?” Julie had asked the question facetiously, but she was curious to know just how wealthy and influential the Bartolinis really were.

Laura laughed. “Not quite as rich and powerful as the Medici!” She stopped her car next to a long wall and turned off the engine. “I should probably explain.” Laura thought a moment and then began. “The Bartolinis are an old Florentine family that’s had its ups and downs over the years. Tommaso’s father set up the fabric business some time after the war and made a success of it. Before he died, however, the business had started to fail. Sandra, his wife, put things back in order when she took over. This is their estate.” Laura pointed to the wall. “Behind the wall, they have a large house and gardens. There’s even a guesthouse in the back where a sculptor, a friend of the family, lives and works. The second son, Ernesto, has built a house on a corner of the property. He bought the land from his father six or seven years ago.”

“I was wondering about-.” Julie stopped there. She reminded herself that she was only pretending to be Laura’s mother. She feared she had no right to ask the questions that were on her mind.

“We’re insisting on a separation of assets, no communal property, if that’s what you’re wondering, but don’t want to ask.” Laura was not offended, Julie noticed. She even looked pleased that Julie cared to ask. “His mother insisted on it, not for the reason you might think. Sandra worked all her married life at the factory but was denied the chance to build up a pension because she was married to the owner and they had declared communal property at the time of their marriage. She doesn’t want anything like that to happen to me.”

“A wise woman. I’m looking forward to meeting her.” Julie was sincere. Her only reserve was about acting the part of Laura’s mother. She hoped she could pull it off without having to lie very much. Julie knew she was an awful liar.

Laura and Julie went to the entrance to the property and rang the bell. Within seconds they were buzzed through a security gate. Once inside the walled property, Julie decided that Laura’s description of the Bartolini family home had been an understatement. It was an enormous, three-storey villa with a veranda that ran around the entire building. An imposing set of stone steps lead to the first floor entrance.

Before they had reached the top of the steps, the front door opened and a very attractive young man came out. He went straight to Laura and kissed her. He whispered, “It’s been too long.” Laura looked uncomfortably at Julie, aware that Tommaso’s whisper had been overheard. He turned to Julie and presented himself, in English with a very pleasant Italian accent. “I’m Tommaso Bartolini, Signora. It’s an honor to finally meet Laura’s mother.” He smiled a charming smile and continued in a soft voice. “Family is very important in Italy. My family, the Bartolinis, would have thought it strange not to meet someone from my fiancé’s family before our wedding. I want them to have nothing against Laura.” He put an arm around Laura’s waist and pulled her to his side. “I want her to be part of my family.”

Julie could see the pleasure his last statement gave Laura. All doubts or worries about whether she should have agreed to play Laura’s mother, disappeared. If it would make such a big difference to Laura’s happiness, it was no sacrifice at all for Julie. “It’s a pleasure to finally meet you, Tommaso. I’m looking forward to getting to know you and your family.”

“We start right away, then!” Tommaso held open the front door for the two women to enter the house before him. He led them through a vast front hall, past other rooms, and finally, to a reception room in the far corner of the house.

Julie followed in silence, awed by the size and luxury of the rooms they passed. The reception room was the most elaborate. It was decorated with crystal, porcelain, gold leaf, expensive woods, and plenty of silks and brocades. She decided that the Bartolinis had wealth and were not afraid to show it off. Julie sat down carefully on a silk covered sofa and was surprised to find it terribly uncomfortable. Laura sat down next to her, while Tommaso served them aperitifs from a crystal carafe on a silver tray.

Tommaso waved a hand at the room and said, “All the fabrics you see in this room are from our factory. We make high quality, luxury fabrics for interiors and clothing. We sell to all the top fashion designers and decorators, even in America!”

Julie thought it sounded like Tommaso was giving her his standard sales pitch. “Have you been to the States, Tommaso?” Julie assumed he had been to the States on sales trips. She was trying to make conversation.

“No, not yet!” Tommaso looked embarrassed by this admission. “They all insist on coming here to see the factory and to see Bell’Italia.” He laughed pleasantly. “You’ll have to forgive me if I sound like I’m selling something, but that’s what I do all day. I’m the Marketing Director. I love to sell and I’m very good at it!”

Julie found Tommaso’s bragging charming because he did it with naiveté. She had a good view of him as he crossed the room with their drinks. Tommaso moved like an actor on stage, with confident, graceful steps. His body was tall and lean, and clothed flatteringly. He was roughly Laura’s age, probably thirty-five, Julie guessed. Tommaso had medium dark hair that he wore stylishly long. His face, made up of a striking combination of strong features, was masculine and very handsome. He seemed open and friendly, but most important for Julie, Tommaso seemed completely taken by Laura and very concerned that his family would accept her. Laura’s friends had raised doubts in Julie’s mind about Tommaso, but just like her doubt about her motherly charade, she felt them fade away. Tommaso and Laura made a very beautiful couple.

Tommaso continued selling, but it was himself he was selling, now, to his fiancée’s mother. “I’m not good with routine. I know that about myself, so I leave the paperwork to my assistant, Gina, and the finances to my brother, Ernesto. He’s Financial Director. That way I’m free to do what I do best, sell. It keeps me traveling quite a bit, but not too much!” He caught himself, clearly hoping to avoid the mistake of sounding like he would neglect his wife.

The show Tommaso was putting on for Julie was interrupted by the arrival of a very beautiful young man. He was taller than Tommaso and perhaps five years younger. He entered the room with a young woman who looked nearly his same age. She was small, thin, with dark coloring, and had a striking but not exactly feminine face. Her facial features were too strong for a woman, thought Julie, but arresting.

“Gina! This is Gina, my assistant and a close friend of the family.” Tommaso put a brotherly arm around Gina’s shoulders. “She keeps my office running, even when I’m on the road. Which isn’t all the time,” he added quickly. “This is Laura’s mother, Julie.”

Gina said nothing as she offered a cold hand for Julie to shake. Her eyes were not welcoming, but their dark color made it difficult to read any expression in them. Gina nodded a welcome to Laura and then took a seat out of their view where she could observe them but she could not be easily observed.

Tommaso indicated the beautiful young man who had entered with Gina. “This is my brother.”

The young man went directly to Julie, took her offered hand and held it as he studied her face. “A great pleasure, Signora. I see where your daughter gets her beauty.”

Julie was surprised, but not taken in, by the flattery. She knew she was not beautiful and had never been considered beautiful. Besides, how could Laura’s looks come from her when she was not even the woman’s real mother? “You must be Ernesto. Tommaso was just mentioning you.”

“Oh, no! Not Ernesto!” The young man laughed sarcastically. “Wait ‘til you meet the real Ernesto, Signora, then you’ll see how funny that is! I’m Antonio, the youngest and most attractive son. As you can see.” He indicated his form and face with a sweep of his arm. “Hard to believe we had the same father!” Julie saw Antonio look out of the corner of his eye to catch his older brother’s annoyance. Antonio went to stand by Tommaso, perhaps for Julie to better compare his prettier features, more athletic figure, and his more stylish clothing. Antonio pushed his jacket back and set his hands on his narrow hips, striking a pose for the ladies.

Tommaso looked unimpressed by his brother’s antics. “Are you staying for dinner?” His tone made it clear he hoped Antonio would not stay to dinner.

“I wouldn’t miss it!” Antonio turned to Julie and Laura. “What do you think of my English? It’s better than Tommaso’s, isn’t it. I have almost no accent.”

Laura kept silent and let the former school librarian handle the little boy begging for a complement at the expense of his brother. Julie said diplomatically, “You do have less of an accent, but I like your brother’s accent very much. It’s charming.” As Antonio considered this response and whether it was a victory or not, Julie continued. “Do you work for the family company, too, Antonio?”

“Sometimes.” Antonio looked at Tommaso as if challenging him to disagree. Tommaso turned to the drinks tray to prepare an aperitif for Gina. Antonio continued. “I’m not suited to factory work. I’m too artistic. I hope some day to take over my mother’s job.”

Tommaso set down the drink he was preparing and said, “How can you expect to run the company, when you’re never even there?” Tommaso’s anger and frustration with his youngest brother was no longer sibling rivalry, but a seemingly long-standing, family argument, thought Julie. “You spend all your time with friends, wasting time and money.”

Antonio shrugged and smiled to show his impatience with his older brother. “I meant my mother’s other job of Production Manager. I’m very artistic and would be perfect designing fabrics and choosing materials and colors. It would also relieve our mother of so much stress and extra work.” Listening to Antonio, one would think he was a dutiful son who wanted to work in the company solely to help his mother, but Julie doubted he was a dutiful son. She thought Antonio seemed much too preoccupied with himself to spare any time thinking of his mother. Tommaso looked ready to point out that same thing when Antonio turned suddenly to Gina. “Let’s take a walk in the garden, Gina. Oh, Tommaso, I’d like to speak to you before dinner, in private.”

Tommaso did not look happy with the request, nor with his brother. He appeared to need to get his frustration off his chest. “We’ll speak now, outside.” Tommaso indicated the gardens beyond the veranda, just visible from the French doors.

Antonio laughed. He seemed to find his older brother’s frustration entertaining. “If you insist. Gina, you’ll have to wait.” Gina stood by the terrace doors, facing the garden. She did not respond but watched silently as Antonio went out the French doors and disappeared down the veranda.

Tommaso said to Laura and Julie, “I’m sorry to leave you, but it’ll only be for a moment. Here’s my mother!” Tommaso was clearly relieved to leave them in good hands. He made the introductions quickly and then left by the veranda door.

Sandra Bartolini pulled up a chair so she could sit nearer her quests. “I’m so glad to meet you, Julie. I’ve wanted to meet the mother who brought up such a wonderful young woman.” She smiled with real affection at Laura. “I’d always hoped for a daughter, but I pleased my husband instead, giving him three sons. Now’s my chance to finally have the daughter I’ve always wanted.” Sandra’s words could barely keep up with her thoughts and emotions. “Not that I don’t love my sons. I do! It’s just that there are so many things you can’t share with sons. Things they can’t understand. They’re not women!”

Laura responded to the warmth and sincerity in kind, noted Julie. Laura told Sandra about their sightseeing in Rome, Siena and San Gimignano. She talked of the tours Donatella had arranged, mentioning the food historian by name, aware of the fact that Sandra and Donatella were acquainted.

While the two women chatted, Julie studied Sandra. She was an attractive, energetic woman in her mid-to-late-fifties. She was dressed expensively, was of medium height, and had dark eyes and hair that she wore cut just above her shoulders. Although an attractive woman, Julie thought Sandra’s voice her most lovely feature. It was deep and warm, expressing sincerity with every word and inspiring closeness with her guests. Sandra’s English was excellent and charming, with an accent slightly stronger than Tommaso’s.

Sandra called out to a woman who had just entered the room. “Elsa, come meet Laura’s mother!” Sandra confided in Julie, “Elsa is an old family friend and my personal assistant and she’s Gina’s mother.” Sandra turned back to Laura and asked, “Did you buy any pottery in San Gimignano?”

Laura and Sandra seemed determined to like each other, thought Julie. With that kind of determination, Julie was sure they could overlook any small faults that might otherwise come between them. She found that very reassuring. The two women continued to discuss pottery, so Julie took a moment to study Elsa, Sandra’s friend and assistant.

Elsa had gone straight to Gina who was still hovering around the French doors to the veranda. Elsa affectionately brushed a stray strand of hair from her daughter’s face as she spoke to her. Julie could not hear what they were saying to each other but she could see them clearly from where she sat. Gina glared with undisguised hostility at her mother, then stepped out of her reach and went abruptly onto the veranda. Elsa was right in the middle of saying something to her daughter and was disconcerted by the slight.

Julie looked away quickly so Elsa would not know she had witnessed the upsetting scene between mother and daughter. Gina was perhaps thirty-years old but she had behaved like a petulant teenager. Elsa was clearly hurt. Julie felt sure that Elsa loved her daughter but the feelings did not appear to be returned.

Elsa pulled up a chair next to Sandra and sat down. She smiled at Julie and shook her hand. Sandra and Laura tried to include them in their conversation about pottery, but Elsa looked distracted. Julie noticed that even in her mid-fifties the mother was much prettier than the daughter. Elsa had a pale complexion and pale blue eyes. Her hair was naturally blond, only just starting to turn gray. Elsa’s features were delicate which gave her round face a childlike appearance making her appear younger than her years.

Julie suddenly remembered the piece of pottery that Donatella had pushed into her purse. She took it out and showed it to Sandra. “A souvenir from San Gimignano.”

Sandra admired it effusively. “It’s handmade, as it says on the back, and a replica of a very old style of dish from that region! It’s very well made and painted with a typical scene on it. It’s a wonderful souvenir!” She handed it to Elsa who admired it in quiet pleasure. Sandra asked suddenly, as if she had only just noticed her son was missing, “Where did Tommaso go?”

“Antonio wanted to speak to him. It was something about the company, I think,” Laura answered.

“The company? Antonio?” Sandra found the idea amusing. She said, “If only it were true. Antonio is my only worry, now. He was terribly spoiled by my husband.”

Julie noticed a change in tone when Sandra mentioned her late husband. She was not fond of the man’s memory. Even Elsa had flinched. Julie recalled that Aldo had said he had been an overbearing man. The memory of his bad nature had certainly not faded with the years since his death.

“Antonio thinks life is one big party thrown in his favor! So far, I’ve managed to save him from himself, but he has to grow up soon. Unluckily, or luckily, he’s not a very determined person. Do you know what I mean?” No one appeared to follow Sandra’s line of thinking. She was ahead of them every second. They did their best to keep up. “Unluckily, because he gives up whenever he’s faced with an obstacle. Luckily, because that means I don’t have to work very hard to dissuade him from his terrible goals. Someday I hope to leave the company in my sons’ hands, all my sons. Ernesto and Tommaso have found positions in the company, but Antonio is my despair.” Sandra looked at Laura with gratitude and patted her on the arm. “What he needs is to meet a woman like you to convince him to settle down. You’ve worked wonders with Tommaso!”

Julie thought Laura looked, in turn, pleased and upset by the comment. Julie wondered what miracles Laura had worked on Tommaso and what had he been like before? Perhaps that was why no one had anything good to say about him? He was a changed man and Laura had changed him!

Chapter Six

Sandra invited them to join her on a quick walk in the gardens before dinner. She took Laura’s arm in hers and led them out to the veranda. They descended the steps to the gardens below. Floodlights shone from the house into the garden and from the garden onto the house. Both shimmered in a soft glow of diffused light. Discretely placed spotlights illuminated the paths that crisscrossed the mature, formal garden.

Elsa said to Julie, “You have a lovely daughter. She’s so kind, but also intelligent and strong.”

Julie was startled to hear Laura called her daughter. She had already forgotten about the part she had agreed to play. “Yes, Laura is kind, intelligent and strong, but I think of all her traits, the one I admire most is her self-discipline.” In the back of her mind, she wondered if Elsa was comparing Laura to Gina, her own daughter, who had seemed anything but kind.

Elsa continued. “I’d like to think that if I’d been born today, maybe even in a different country, I would be a woman like Laura.”

Julie thought she understood what Elsa was saying. Opportunities for women had opened up since they were young, even more so in America than in Italy. “I think if you were born today, you would have become a model. You’re a very beautiful woman, Elsa. Is it alright to say that?” Elsa looked surprised and not necessarily pleased by Julie’s complement. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to offend you.” What had she said now? Julie wondered if it was some kind of cross-cultural mistake?

Sandra walked up to them with Laura in tow. “It was a lovely complement, Julie. I think Elsa was just surprised. At our age we don’t expect to get complements on our looks.” This went a good way to relieving Julie’s distress. “And beauty can be both a gift and a burden.” For once Sandra did not rush into another thought. She stopped there, as if considering her own words.

Elsa looked with gratitude at Sandra. “Sandra was an artist’s model when she was younger.” Elsa looked and sounded proud of her friend.

Sandra laughed. “That was a long time, and three sons, ago!” They returned to their walk, but stayed closer together this time. Sandra continued their conversation as she guided them down the garden paths. “The sculptor who lives in our guest house, Oscar, used me as model and muse many years ago. My husband made that stop. He said it was degrading.”

“That’s not true!” Julie had spoken more forcefully than she had intended. Sandra stopped walking and turned to hear more. Julie felt she had to explain. “I mean that runway models or even photo modeling can be degrading. The woman is just an object, usually used to sell something, and sometimes done up in a degrading manner. It’s different for a model for a painter or a sculptor or an artistic photographer. The woman is immortalized together with the artist’s creativity.” Julie felt uncomfortable lecturing others. She decided to wrap up her unintended discourse. “I’ve never seen an artist’s model that looked like the woman in the artwork. It’s always the artist’s interpretation of the woman that’s depicted. That’s not degrading.”

Sandra looked impressed with Julie and her ideas. “I agree completely. My husband was a fool.” Elsa nodded her agreement. “Artists see the people around them differently than the rest of us. That’s what makes them artists. They show us new ways of looking at old things. Oscar’s very talented and famous, even outside of Italy! I think his best work is when he’s most unconventional.” She led them down a path to the end of the garden at a pace that was difficult to match in the shadows at the back of the garden.

Julie and Elsa became separated as they hurried around a turn in the path. Voices caught Julie’s attention. She heard Antonio and Tommaso arguing not far from where she stood. Deciding it was none of her business and that the two brothers probably argued often, Julie hurried after the other women. Then, out of the corner of her eye she noticed Gina, hiding behind some bushes, listening to the brothers arguing. Julie heard Sandra calling. “Julie, have we lost you?” Julie hurried in the direction of Sandra’s voice.

“There you are!” Sandra exclaimed as Julie joined the women. They were standing next to an ivy-covered, two-storey cottage. It was so covered in green vines that it blended right in with the surrounding garden. Only the illuminated windows showed that it was a building. Through a window, Julie saw a man scraping clay from a life-sized statue.

“That’s Oscar Olvidi at work,” Sandra whispered.

Together, they watched the man shaping his sculpture. From where she stood, Julie thought Oscar looked like he was a short man in his late fifties. What little hair he had left on his head was mussed and splattered with clay. He moved lightly on his feet, stepping forward quickly to adjust his work, then dancing back to study the effect of the change. Julie agreed with Sandra that the man’s work needed to be more challenging. The sculpture he was working on seemed conventional. Maybe after all his adjustments it would improve? Julie wanted to keep watching. She found the process of his work fascinating.

“You’ll meet him at dinner,” promised Sandra. “We should let him work in peace. He’s working to a deadline to fire the sculpture.”

Sandra led the way back to the house, this time arranging to walk beside Julie. “Julie,” she lowered her voice so the other two women could not overhear, “I hope you don’t think I’m trying to steal your lovely daughter away from you.”

A pang of regret filled Julie’s heart. She hated lying to this warm, vibrant woman, but she had promised Laura. How could she say what she really felt without lying? “Laura’s a long way from home and she wants to make this her new home. She needs support from friends, here. I think she’s found that in you. I appreciate all you’ve done and all you will do to make Laura feel a part of your family, Sandra. Laura is very lucky to have you as a friend and will be very lucky to have you as her mother-in-law.” Julie had no problem speaking these words from the heart and was gratified by Sandra’s pleasure in hearing them.

As they returned to the reception room, they heard voices coming from the hall. “That’s Ernesto and his family,” Sandra said as she hurried out of the room.

Julie watched as Tommaso entered from the veranda and stood next to Laura who was seated on the sofa. Antonio entered after his brother and took up a pose where everyone could get a good look at him. Gina entered next and sat down in the same chair as before. Elsa sat opposite Julie and looked at her daughter in disappointment. Julie reflected that, everything considered, they seemed a typical family with typical squabbles. She was relieved that Laura was going to marry into a normal family, despite their wealth.

The daughter-in-law’s voice reached them before she did. Julie found it odd that the woman was speaking in English. Julie wondered if it could it be for her benefit? “Ernesto had to finish those reports for the tax people, Sandra. You understand, don’t you? When it comes to the company, I can’t get Ernesto to compromise. Not that I would want to! It always comes first!”

“Of course, Francesca, dear. Come, I’ll introduce you.” Sandra led the bejeweled and stylishly dressed woman to Julie. “Julie, this is my daughter-in-law, Ernesto’s wife, Francesca. And this is my son, Ernesto, and his children Patrizia and Roberto.”

Julie greeted Francesca, who studied her intently as she showed off some more of her excellent English. “Pleasure, I’m sure. Finally, we meet Laura’s family.”

Suspecting the woman was fishing for a complement for her language skills, Julie gave her one. “Your English is excellent, Francesca. Very impressive!”

Francesca was very pleased with the complement and glanced at Sandra to make sure her mother-in-law had heard. Ernesto managed only a mumbled greeting, before Francesca gave him his orders. “Sit down and I’ll bring you a cocktail.”

The two children were moving so quickly about the room that Julie could only get an impression of them. Patrizia looked about nine years old. She was a bit chubby and had light hair and a few freckles. Roberto was perhaps seven years old. He had a strong body and a plain face. They greeted Elsa like an elderly aunt, much to Gina’s disgust, as Julie noticed when she stole a look in the young woman’s direction. Elsa hugged them affectionately.

“Don’t hang on Elsa like that!” Francesca chastened her children.

“There’s no harm,” Elsa insisted, smiling kindly at Patrizia and Roberto.

They ran to Laura, who seemed to be a favorite of both of the children. Patrizia admired a necklace Laura was wearing by touching the pearls between her fingers as she said in perfect English, “I’m the president of my class. We had an election this week.”

“Presidente Patrizia!” Roberto yelled as he took a seat between Julie and Laura.

“Don’t yell, Roberto!” Francesca yelled at her son. She moved to the aperitif tray and helped herself to a drink, all the while keeping a watchful eye on her husband and two children.

Laura made Patrizia gently let go of the pearls and take a seat next to her on the sofa. “Congratulations, Signorina Presidente. I was president of my class one year, too.” Patrizia beamed with pleasure at her title and at having something in common with Laura, suspected Julie.

“Don’t encourage her!” Francesca instructed Laura.

In less than a minute, Julie had counted at least four commands by Francesca to her children, her husband, and Laura. It looked like Ernesto, rather than marry his mother as the expression had it, had married his father. Francesca was overbearing!

A good look at Ernesto convinced Julie that Antonio had been right about his being completely different from his brother. Ernesto was of medium height, medium coloring, and very plain featured. He was a bit over weight, which made his expensive clothes look rumpled instead of stylish. While Tommaso could be described as handsome and Antonio could be described as beautiful, Ernesto could best be described as stodgy.

Patrizia studied Julie. “What was Laura like in school?”

“What a silly question!” Francesca ridiculed her daughter.

“Not so silly,” Julie disagreed. She spoke directly to Patrizia and Roberto. “Laura was very studious and learned things very quickly. She was a very good student. Her teachers always said so, all the way through University.”

Patrizia’s eyes widened in amazement as she asked, “Laura went to University?”

“Of course! All bright young girls and boys should go to University to learn all they can. Laura earned two degrees.”

“Mothers only see the good things.” Francesca dismissed thus Julie’s praise of Laura.

Julie was stunned by Francesca’s ungracious comment, especially because Julie was convinced Francesca was a mother who could see no good in her own children! Patrizia and Roberto reminded her of some of the neglected children she had taught. They were desperate for attention, from anyone, to make up for the lack of positive attention they received from their parents.

Julie asked pointedly, “What do you want to study at University, Patrizia?”

“I don’t know.” Patrizia looked like she had never considered the question before and was afraid to consider it now.

Francesca interrupted them saying, “Roberto is going to study accounting like his father and work for the family business.”

Julie saw that Francesca’s statement made many of the people in the room uncomfortable, including Roberto. He pushed out his lower lip in silent protest.

“No, he won’t.” Patrizia spoke up for her brother. “He wants to be an engineer or an architect. He wants to build things.” Roberto looked with gratitude and affection at his older sister.

Julie decided to stop Francesca’s response, certain to be scathing. “I think those are wonderful professions.” In the back of her mind, she thought it amusing that she was protecting children, even after retirement. “University is a long way off, so you have plenty of time to decide. My brother was an architect. He enjoyed his work very much.” Roberto smiled up at Julie.

The late entrance of Oscar, the sculptor, stopped any further discussion with the children. “There you are,” Sandra called out affectionately. “Just in time for dinner. Come here! Let me sort you out.” Sandra adjusted the man’s tie and jacket as he stood before her like a docile child.

“I’m sorry I’m late. I was working.” Oscar kissed Sandra on both cheeks and did the same to greet Elsa and Gina. Gina received the greeting coldly, but the other two women were obviously fond of the absent-minded artist. He went directly to Julie and introduced himself, kissing her hand in greeting. “A great pleasure, Signora. Please let me make up for being late by escorting you into the dining room. You must sit by me so we can talk about your beautiful daughter.”

Oscar took her arm and escorted Julie into the opulent dining room. The table was dressed with linens, crystal, and silver. The veranda doors were open, filling the room with sweet-scented air from the garden below. Sandra and Tommaso sat at the heads of the table. Oscar and Elsa sat on either side of Sandra, and Oscar had Julie sit next to him. Gina sat as far away as possible from her mother. Laura, to avoid an argument between the children, ended up seated between them. The service, provided by a young man and woman, was as impeccable as the food. Most of Julie’s attention throughout the dinner was occupied by Oscar’s gallantries. He spent the whole time complementing four women: Laura, Sandra, Elsa, and Julie. Julie thought he was enchanting, so she did not mind. Besides, the others had reverted to speaking Italian and seemed to be discussing something having to do with the family business.

At the end of the meal, Sandra called them to attention. “Everyone, please remember that tomorrow is a holiday and we’ve been invited to a party at Laura’s home. And don’t forget! Tommaso and Laura marry in four weeks. That will be followed by their honeymoon.”

Francesca said loudly, “You could take a holiday, too, Sandra. Ernesto can run things while you are away. You deserve a holiday.” Julie was surprised by the intense reactions around the table to Francesca’s innocent-sounding suggestion.

Antonio was unable to contain his anger. Julie wondered if that was because he had drunk too much wine, or because he was blunt? “Trying to pull off a palace coop, Francesca?”

“I just meant she should take some time for herself. Her children can take over her responsibilities.” Francesca stopped there at a signal from her husband, Ernesto. There was silence around the table for a split-second as everyone looked at Ernesto in amazement. Julie guessed that they did not often see the man exert control over his wife.

Antonio was about to take advantage of Francesca’s silence when Tommaso broke in. “Antonio, you have no right to say who should run the company and who not. You have nothing to do with it. At least Francesca works there as Ernesto’s assistant.”

Antonio laughed at his older brother. “What about you? Your interest in the company is pretty recent. And what about Gina?”

“What about Gina?” Elsa stepped in to defend her daughter.

“She’s Tommaso’s assistant, so by Tommaso’s logic, shouldn’t she have a say, too?” Antonio laughed at his older brother’s anger. “Besides, what do you care about the business? You’re going to have a rich wife and mother-in-law. Only last year you wanted mother to sell the business and split the money between us.”

Julie did not like where the argument was going and what was that about a rich wife and mother-in-law?

Elsa said to Antonio, “Your mother did what was best for all of you. The company is worth more today than it ever was and that’s all due to her!”

Oscar shifted uncomfortably in his seat and looked at Sandra’s children in disappointment.

“That’s enough out of you, Antonio. Not in front of our guest!” Sandra chided her unruly son. “We’ll discuss business on Tuesday morning and not before. That goes for all of you!”

Antonio glared at his two brothers as he rose from the table. “I don’t think there’s anything to discuss. Everything is just fine as it is.” He left the room before anyone could say anything more.

The next few minutes were full of apologies and kind words all around. They agreed that it was time Antonio grew out of his bad habits. Julie doubted they were just bad habits and that the young man would ever grow out of them, but she said nothing. She let them entertain her for what remained of the evening, telling her stories about Florence and their family and of the glories of the Italian Renaissance. The way the Bartolinis spoke of that period in history, Julie had the impression that the Renaissance was only a few generations before, rather than over four hundred years in the past. Tommaso was especially attentive to both her and Laura all evening long.

Later, when it was time to leave, Tommaso walked them to their car. He tried to kiss Laura goodnight, but she chastely offered him her cheek to kiss. Tommaso glanced at Julie, as if he assumed she were the reason for Laura’s reserve. He said, “Let me apologize, again, for Antonio’s behavior, Julie. He can be so childish.”

Julie tried to reassure him. “Don’t worry about it, Tommaso. I know all about brothers and their feelings of rivalry. You have a very normal family that has to deal with living and working together. That’s always difficult. I had a wonderful time this evening and I’m looking forward to the party tomorrow, which I’m sure will be smooth sailing.”

“I hope so, for your sake!” He put his arm around Laura. “We want you to have lots of wonderful memories to take back with you to America.” Julie noticed Laura look up in surprise at Tommaso’s words.

Laura helped Julie into the car and they headed home. They were only a few minutes into their journey when Laura addressed what was foremost on Julie’s mind. “I suppose your wondering about the wealthy, future mother-in-law thing?”

“I was wondering about that, Laura. I am comfortably off, thanks to some good investments over the last few years, but I wouldn’t say I was wealthy, certainly not by Bartolini standards.”

Laura sighed. “I’m sorry about that. Early on in my relationship with Tommaso, I let them have the impression you were wealthy. I didn’t want anyone to think I was interested in Tommaso for his money. Now it’s no longer an issue. Sandra knows I’m not a golddigger. I’ll correct the impression if you want me to.”

Julie knew it would be unpleasant to have to correct that impression, now. But there was the even greater complication of Julie not actually being Laura’s mother. Why bother correcting one lie, while perpetuating another? “Let’s just leave it. I’ll be in America in a few weeks and I probably won’t be back here for a while. That gives you some time to clear up both our white lies.”

Laura did not answer, seemingly occupied with the traffic on the road through Florence.

(End of Part I and the end of Chapters 1-6 of An Extra Virgin Pressing Murder by Candida Martinelli)