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Going to Italy had seemed a brilliant move for a language expert. She could improve her Italian, study the country and generally avoid recognising that she wasn't just leaving New York; she was fleeing it.
But the truth was still the truth. Charlotte knew she had to flee memories of an emotion that had once felt like love, but which had revealed itself as disappointingly hollow, casting a negative light on almost everything in her life. It was like wandering in a desert. She belonged to nobody and nobody belonged to her. Perhaps it was this thought that made her leave her laptop computer behind. It pleased her to be beyond the reach of anyone unless she herself decided otherwise.
For two months she wandered around Italy, seeking something she couldn't define. She made a point of visiting Naples, fascinated by the legendary Mount Vesuvius, whose eruptions had destroyed cities in the past. Disappointingly it was now considered so safe that she could wander up to the summit and stand there listening hopefully for a growl.
Which was a bit like her life, she thought wryly. Waiting for something significant to happen. But nothing did. At twenty-seven, an age when many people had chosen their path in life, she still had no clue where hers was leading.
On the train from Naples to Rome she thought of Don, the man she'd briefly thought she loved. She'd wanted commitment and when Don didn't offer it she'd demanded to know where they were headed. His helpless shrug had told her the worst, and she'd hastened to put distance between them.
She had no regrets. Briefly she'd wondered if she might have been cleverer and perhaps drawn him closer instead of driving him away. But in her heart she knew things had never been quite right between them. It was time to move on.
As the train pulled into Roma Termini she reckoned it might be interesting to find the answer to that question.
She took a taxi to the Hotel Geranno on the Via Vittorio Veneto, one of the most elegant and expensive streets in Rome. The hotel boasted every facility, including its own internet cafe. She found it easily and slipped into a booth, full of plans to contact family and friends. She might even get in touch with Don on her social networking site, just to let him know there were no hard feelings, and they could be friends.
But the words that greeted her on Don's page were 'Thanks to everyone for your kind wishes on my engagement. Jenny and I want our wedding to be'
She shut the file down.
Jenny! Charlotte remembered her always hanging around making eyes at Don. And he'd noticed her. Pretty, sexy, slightly voluptuousshe was made to be noticed.
Not like me, she thought.
Some women would have envied Charlotte's appearance. Tall, slender, dark-haired, dark-eyed; she wasn't a woman who faded into the background. She'd always had her share of male admiration; not the kind of gawping leer that Jenny could inspire, but satisfying enough. Or so she'd thought.
But Don hadn't wasted any time mourning her and that was just fine. The past was the past.
She touched a few more keys to access her email, and immediately saw one from her sister Alex, headlined, You'll never believe this!
Alex liked to make things sound exciting so, although mildly intrigued, Charlotte wasn't alarmed. But, reading the email, she grew still again as a family catastrophe unfolded before her eyes.
'Mom' she murmured. 'You couldn't haveit's not possible!'
She had always known that her father, Cedric Patterson, was her mother's second husband. Before him Fenella had been married to Clay Calhoun, a Texas rancher. Only after their divorce had she married Cedric and lived with him in New York. There she'd borne four childrenthe twins Matt and Ellie, Charlotte and her younger sister Alexandra.
Now it seems that Mom was already carrying Matt and Ellie when she left Clay, Alex wrote. She wrote and told him she was pregnant, but by that time he was with Sandra, who seems to have hidden the letter but, oddly enough, kept it. Nobody knew about it until both she and Clay were dead. He died last year, and the letter was found unopened, so I guess he never knew about Matt and Ellie.
What do you think of that? All these years we've thought they were our brother and sister, but now it seems we're only half-siblings! Same mother, different father. When Ellie told me what had happened I couldn't get my head around it, and I'm still in a spin.
Quickly Charlotte ran through her other emails, seeking one from Ellie that she was sure would be there. But she found nothing. Disbelieving, she ran through them again, but there was no word from Ellie.
Which meant that everyone in the family knew except her. Ellie hadn't bothered to tell her something so momentous. It had been left to Alex to send her the news as an afterthought, as though she was no more than a fringe member of the family. Which, right now, was how she felt.
Returning to the lobby she again knew the sensation of being lost in a desert. But this desert had doors, one leading to a restaurant known for its haute cuisine, the other leading to a bar. Right this minute a drink was what she needed.
The barman smiled as she approached. 'What can I get you?'
'A tequila,' she told him.
When it was served she looked around for a place to sit, but could see only one seat free, at the far end of the bar. She slipped into it and found that she could lean back comfortably against the wall, surveying her surroundings.
The room was divided into alcoves, some small, some large. The small ones were all taken up by couples, gazing at each other, revelling in the illusion of privacy. The larger ones were crowded with 'beautiful people' as though the cream of Roman society had gathered here tonight.
In the nearest alcove six people focused their attention on one man. He was king of all he surveyed, Charlotte thought with a touch of amusement. And with reason. In his early thirties, handsome, lean, athletic, he held centrestage without effort. When he laughed, they laughed. When he spoke they listened.
Nice if you can get it, Charlotte thought with a little sigh. I'll bet his volcano never falls silent.
Just then he glanced up and saw her watching him. For the briefest moment he turned his head to one side, a question in his eyes. Then one of the women claimed his attention and he turned to her with a perfectly calculated smile.
An expert, she thought. He knows exactly what he's doing to them, and what they can do for him.
Such certainly seemed enviable. Her own future looked depressing. Returning to New York smacked of defeat. She could stay in Italy for the year she'd promised herself, but that was less inviting now that things were happening at home; things from which she was excluded.
She thought of Don and Jenny, revelling in their love. All around her she saw people happy in each other's company, smiling, reaching out. And suddenly it seemed unbearable that there was nobody reaching out to her. She finished her drink and sat staring at the empty glass.
'Excuse me, can I just?'
It was the man from the alcove, easing himself into the slight space between her and the next bar stool. She leaned back to make space for him but a slight unevenness in the floor made him wobble and slew to the side, colliding with her.
'Mi dispiace,' he apologised in Italian, steadying her with his hand.
'Va tutto bene,' she reassured him. 'Niente di male.' All is well. No harm done.
Still in Italian he said, 'But you'll let me buy you a drink to say sorry.'
'Another tequila?' asked the barman.
'Certainly not,' said the newcomer. 'Serve this lady a glass of the very best Chianti, then bring another round of drinks to me and my friends over there.'
He retreated and the barman placed a glass of red wine in front of Charlotte. It was the most delicious she had ever tasted. Sipping it she glanced over at him, and it was no surprise to find him watching her. She raised her glass in salute and he raised his back. This seemed to disconcert the women sitting on either side of him, who asserted themselves to reclaim him, Charlotte was amused to notice.
Despite being in the heart of Rome they were speaking English. She was sitting close enough to overhear some of the remarks passing back and forth, half sentences, words that floated into the distance, but all telling the tale of people who lived expensive lives.
'You were on that cruise, weren't you? Wasn't it a gorgeous ship? Everything you wanted on demand '
'I knew I'd met you before you were at the opening of that new.'
'Look at her. If she's not wearing the latest fashion she thinks.'
Leaning back, Charlotte observed the little gathering with eyes that saw everything. Two of the women were watching Lucio like lions studying prey, but they were in alliance. She could have sworn that one murmured to the other, 'Me first'. She couldn't hear the words, but she could read their expressions: watchful, confident that each would have their turn with him.
She could understand their desires. It wasn't merely his striking looks and costly clothes, but his air of being in charge, directing his own life and that of others. This was a man who'd never known doubt or fear.
She envied him. It must be good to know so certainly who you were, what you were, how others saw you and where you belonged in the world, instead of being that saddest of creaturesa woman who drank alone.
As if to emphasise the point the seat beside her was occupied by a woman gazing devotedly at her male companion, who returned the compliment with interest, then slid an arm about her shoulders, drew her close and said fervently, 'Let's go now.'
'Yes, let's,' she breathed. And they were gone.
At once the man in the alcove rose, excused himself to his companions and swiftly claimed the empty seat before anyone else could try.
'Can I get you another drink?' he asked Charlotte.
'Well, just a small one. I should be leaving.'
'Going somewhere special?'
'No,' she said softly. 'Nowhere special.'
After a moment he said, 'Are you alone?'
He grinned. 'Perhaps you'd be better off with someone to protect you from clumsy guys like me.' 'No need. I can protect myself.' 'I see. No man necessary, eh?'
A voice called, 'Hey, Lucio! Let's get going!'
His companions in the alcove were preparing to leave, beckoning him towards the door.
'Afraid I can't,' he said. 'I'm meeting someone here in half an hour. It was nice to meet you.'
Reluctantly they bid him goodbye and drifted away. When the door was safely closed he breathed out in obvious relief.
'Hey, your friends are crazy about you,' she reproved him lightly. 'You might at least return the compliment.'
'They're not my friends. I only know them casually, and two I never met before today.'
'But you were dousing them with charm.'
'Of course. I'm planning to make money out of them.'
'Ah! Hence the charm!'
'What else is charm for?'
'So now you're girding up for your next "victim" in half an hour.'
He gave a slow smile. 'There's no one coming. That was just to get rid of them.'
She looked down into her glass, lest her face reveal how much this pleased her. He would be a welcome companion for a little while.
He read her exactly, offering his hand and saying, 'Lucio'
His last name was drowned by a merry shout from further along the bar. She raised her voice to say, 'Charlotte.' ''Buona sera, Charlotte.' ''Buona sera, Lucio.'
'Are you really Italian?' he asked, his head slightly to one side.
'Why do you ask?'
'Because I can't quite pinpoint your accent. Venice? No, I don't think so. Milan? Hmm. RomeNaples?' 'Sicily?' Charlotte teased. 'No, not Sicily. You sound nothing like.' 'You said that very quickly. You must know Sicily well.'
'Fairly well. But we were talking about you. Where do you come from?'
His bright smile was like a visor behind which he'd retreated at the mention of Sicily. Though intrigued, she was too wise to pursue the matter just yet. Later would be more interesting.
'I'm not Italian at all,' she said. 'I'm American.'
'You're kidding me!'
'No, I'm not. I come from New York.'
'And you speak my language like a native. I'm impressed.' Someone squeezed by them, forcing them to draw back uncomfortably. 'There's no room for us here,' he said, taking her arm and drawing her towards the door.
Several pairs of female eyes regarded her with frank envy. It was clear that the watching women had their own ideas about how the evening would end.
Well, you're wrong, Charlotte thought, slightly irritated. He's a nice guy and I'll enjoy talking to him, but that's all. Not everything has to end in amore, even in Italy. OK, so he's suave, sophisticated, expensively dressed and fantastically good-looking, but I won't hold that against him.
'So why Italian?' he asked as they began to stroll along the Via Vittorio Veneto.
'I was always fascinated by foreign languages. I studied several at school, but somehow it was always Italian that stood out and attracted me more than the others. So I learned it through and through. It's such a lovely language.'
'And in the end you got a job here, probably working at the U.S. Embassy, just up the street.'
'No, I don't work here. I'm a translator in New York. I do Italian editions of books, sometimes universities hire me to look over old manuscripts. And I suddenly thought, it's about time I actually saw the country and drank in what it's really like. So I caught the next plane out.'
'Well, it took a couple of days to make arrangements, but that's all. Then I was free to go.'
'No ties? Family?'
'I've got parents, siblings, but nobody who can constrain my freedom.'
'Freedom,' he mused. 'That's what it's really about, huh?'
'One of the things. I've done some mad, stupid things in my life, and most of them have been about staying free.' She gave a wry laugh. 'It's practically my family nickname. Ellie's the beautiful one, Alex is the lovable one and I'm the crazy one.'
'That sounds fascinating. I'd really like to hear about your craziness.'
'Well, there's the time I set my heart on marrying this guy and my parents said no. We were only seventeen, which they thought was too young.'
He considered this with an air of seriousness that had a touch of humour. 'They could have had a point.'
'The way I saw it they were denying me my own way. Hell would freeze over before I admitted they could be right. So we eloped.'
'You married at seventeen?'
'No way. By the time we'd covered a few miles I could see what a juvenile twerp he was. To be fair I think he'd spotted the same about me. Anyway, I got all set to make a run for it, and bumped into him because he was making a run for it, too.'
Lucio roared with laughter. 'What happened when you got home?'
'My mother's a very clever woman. She knew better than to make a fuss. When she caught me sidling in she glanced up and said, "Oh, there you are. Don't make a noise, your father's asleep." We had a talk later but there were no hysterics. By then she was used to me doing stupid things.'
'But would getting married be the path to freedom? Husbands can be very restrictive.'
She chuckled. 'I didn't think of that at the time. I just pictured him doing things my way. Luckily I saw the truth before too late.'
'Yes, husbands have this maddening habit of wanting their own way.'
'Oh, I learnt the lesson.'
'So you still don't have a husband?'
'No husband, no nothing.' She added casually, 'These days it's the way to be.'
'You're a true woman of your age. At one time an unmarried girl would wonder why no man wanted her. Now she wonders what's the best way to keep them off.'
'Right,' she responded in the same teasing voice. 'Sometimes you have to be really ingenious. And sometimes just ruthless.'