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Horns blared, lights flashed in the darkness and Ferne ground her hands together as the cab battled its way through the slow-moving Milan traffic.
'Oh no! I'm going to miss the train. Please!'
The driver called back over his shoulder, 'I'm doing my best, signorina, but the traffic here is like nowhere else in the world.' He said it with pride.
'I know it's not your fault,' she cried. 'But I've got a ticket on the night train to Naples. It leaves in a quarter of an hour.'
The driver chuckled. 'Leave it to me. Twenty years I am driving in Milan, and my passengers do not miss their trains.'
The next ten minutes were breathless but triumphant, and at last the ornate façade of Milan Central Station came into view. As Ferne leapt out and paid the driver, a porter appeared.
'Train to Naples,' she gasped.
'This way, signorina.'
They made it to the platform looking so frantic that heads were turned. But suddenly Ferne stumbled and went sprawling right in the path of the porter, who sprawled in turn.
She wanted to yell aloud at being thwarted at the last moment, but miraculously hands came out of nowhere, seized her, thrust her on board, the bags following after her. A door slammed.
'Stai bene?' came a man's voice.
'I'm sorry, I don't speak Italian,' she said breathlessly, clutching him as he helped her to her feet.
'I asked if you are all right,' he said in English.
'Yes, but—oh heavens, we're moving. I should have given that poor man something.'
'Leave it to me.'
There was a narrow opening at the top of the window and the man slid his arm through, his hand full of notes which the porter seized gratefully. Her rescuer waved and turned back to face her in the corridor of the train that was already gathering speed.
Now Ferne had a moment to look at him, and realised that she was suffering delusions. He was so handsome that it was impossible. In his thirties, he stood, tall and impressive, with wide shoulders and hair of a raven-black colour that only Italians seemed to achieve. His eyes were deep blue, gleaming with life, and his whole appearance was something no man could be permitted outside the pages of a novel.
To cap it all, he'd come galloping to her rescue like the hero of a melodrama, which was simply too much. But, what the heck? She was on holiday.
He returned her gaze, briefly but appreciatively, taking in her slender figure and dark-red hair. Without conceit, but also without false modesty, she knew she was attractive; the expression in his eyes was one she'd often seen before, although it was a while since she'd responded to it.
'I'll refund you that tip, of course,' she said.
A woman had appeared behind them in the corridor. She was in her sixties, white-haired, slender and elegant.
'Are you hurt, my dear?' she asked. 'That was a nasty fall you had.'
'No, I'm fine, just a bit shaken.'
'Dante, bring her to our compartment.'
'OK, Aunt Hope. You take her, I'll bring the bags.'
The woman took Ferne gently by the arm and led her along the corridor to a compartment where a man, also in his sixties, was standing in the doorway watching their approach. He stood back to let them in and ushered Ferne to a seat.
'From the way you speak, I think you are English,' the woman said with a charming smile.
'Yes, my name is Ferne Edmunds.'
'I too am English. At least, I was long ago. Now I am Signora Hope Rinucci. This is my husband, Toni—and this young man is our nephew, Dante Rinucci.'
Dante was just entering with the bags, which he shoved under the seats, and then he sat down, rubbing his upper arm.
Are you hurt?' Hope asked anxiously.
He grimaced. 'Pushing my arm through that narrow space has probably left me with bruises for life.' Then a grin broke over his face. 'It's all right, I'm only joking. Stop fussing. It's our friend here who needs care. Those platforms are hard.'
'That's true,' Ferne said ruefully, rubbing her knees through her trousers.
'Would you like me to take a look?' he asked hopefully, reaching out a hand.
'No, she would not,' Hope said, determinedly forestalling him. 'Behave yourself. In fact, why don't you go to the restaurant-car and order something for this young lady?' She added sternly, 'Both of you.'
Like obedient little boys, both men rose and departed without a word. Hope chuckled.
'Now, signorina—it is signorina?'
'Signorina Edmunds. But, please, call me Ferne. After what your family has done for me, let's not be formal.'
'Good. In that case—'
There was a knock on the door and a steward looked in.
'Oh yes, you want to make up the berths,' Hope said. 'Let's join the men.'
As they went along the corridor, Hope asked, 'Where is your sleeping berth?'
'I don't have one,' Ferne admitted. 'I booked at the last minute and everything was taken.'
By now they had reached the dining-car, where Toni and Dante had taken a table. Dante stood up and graciously showed her to the seat beside him.
'Here's the ticket inspector,' Hope said. 'Let's get the formalities out of the way before we eat. They may be able to find you a berth.'
But from that moment things went horribly wrong. As the others showed their paperwork, Ferne scrabbled hopelessly in her bag, finally facing the terrible truth.
'It's gone,' she whispered. 'Everything. My money, the tickets—they must have fallen out when I fell on the platform.'
Another search produced no result. Disaster!
'My passport's gone too!' she gasped. 'I've got to go back.'
But the train was now travelling at full speed.
'It doesn't stop until Naples,' Hope explained.
'They'll stop to throw me off when they find out I've no ticket and no money,' Ferne said frantically.
Hope's voice was soothing. 'Let's see what we can do about that.'
Toni began to speak to the inspector in Italian. After a while he produced his credit card.
'They're issuing you another ticket,' Hope explained.
'Oh, that's so kind of you. I'll pay you back, I promise.'
'Let's not worry about that now. First we have to find you a berth.'
'That's easy,' Dante said. 'My sleeping-car is a double, and I'm only using one berth, so—'
'So Toni can come in with you and Ferne can come in with me,' Hope said, beaming. 'What a splendid idea!'
'Actually, Aunt, I was thinking—'
'I know what you were thinking and you should be ashamed.'
'Yes, Aunt, anything you say, Aunt.'
But he winked at Ferne, and she couldn't help being charmed. The mere idea of this handsome, confident man doing what he was told was so idiotic, and his air of meekness so clearly an act, that she had to smile and join in the joke.
The inspector exchanged some more words with Toni before nodding and hurrying away.
'He's going to call the station now and tell them to look out for your things,' Toni explained to Ferne. 'Luckily you discovered the loss quickly, so they may pick them up before anyone else finds them. But, just in case, you must cancel your credit cards.'
'How can I do that from here?' Ferne asked, baffled.
'The British consulate will help you,' Dante declared, taking out his own mobile phone.
In a few moments he had obtained the emergency number of the Milan consulate, dialled it and handed the phone to Ferne.
The young man on duty was efficient. Quickly he looked up the numbers of the credit-card companies, assigned her a reference number and bid her goodnight. Calls to the finance companies achieved the cancellation of her cards and the promise of new ones. This was as much as she could hope for for now.
'I don't know what I'd have done without you,' she told her new friends fervently. 'When I think what could have happened to me.'
'Don't think about it,' Hope advised. 'All will be well. Ah, here is the waiter with a snack. Hmm, cakes and wine are all very well, but I should like a large pot of tea.'
'English tea.' Toni gave instructions to the waiter, who nodded solemnly, evidently familiar with this peculiarity among his customers.
The tea was excellent, so were the cakes, which the others piled onto her plate.
'When did you last eat?' Hope asked.
'Properly? Oh—some time. I left on the spur of the moment, caught the train from London to Paris, then Paris to Milan. I don't like flying, and I wanted to be free to stop and explore whenever I wanted. I had a few days in Milan, shopping and seeing the sights. I meant to stay there overnight and go on tomorrow, but I suddenly changed my mind, packed up and ran.'
'That's the way to live!' Dante exclaimed. 'Here today, gone tomorrow; let life bring what it will.' He took Ferne's hand and spoke with theatrical fervour. 'Signorina, you are a woman after my own heart. More than a woman—a goddess with a unique understanding of life. I salute you—why are you laughing?'
'I'm sorry,' Ferne choked. 'I can't listen to that guff with a straight face.'
'Guff? Guff? Is this a new English word?'
'No,' Hope informed him, amused. 'It's an old English word and it means that you need a better scriptwriter.'
'But only for me,' Ferne chuckled. 'I expect it works wonderfully on the others.'
Dante's face was the picture of outrage.
'The others? Don't you realise that you are the only one who has inspired me to lay my heart at her feet? The only— Oh, all right; I usually get a better reception than this.'
His collapse into realism made them all laugh.
'It's nice to meet a lady with such an adventurous approach to life,' he added. 'But I expect it's only while you're on holiday. You'll go back to England, your sedate nine-to-five life, and your sedate nine-to-five fiancé.'
'If I had a fiancé, what would I be doing here alone?' she demanded.
This made him pause, but only for a moment.
'He betrayed you,' he said dramatically. 'You are teaching him a lesson. When you return, he will be jealous, especially when he sees the compromising pictures of us together.'
'Oh, will he indeed? And where will these pictures come from?'
'It can be arranged. I know some good photographers.'
'I'll bet you don't know anyone better than me,' she riposted.
'You're a photographer?' Hope asked. 'A journalist?'
'No, I do theatrical work.' Some inexplicable instinct made her say to Dante, 'And he wasn't sedate. Anything but.'
He didn't reply in words, but his expression was wry and curious. So was the way he nodded.
'Let the poor girl eat in peace,' Hope admonished him.
She watched Ferne like a mother hen, finally declaring that it was time for bed. The four of them made their way back along the corridor and said goodnight. Ferne and Hope went into one sleeping car, Toni and Dante went on to the next.
As Ferne hung up the trousers she'd been wearing, a few coins fell out onto the floor.
'I'd forgotten I had some money in my pocket,' she said, holding them out.
'Three euros,' Hope observed. 'You wouldn't have got far with that.'
They sat down on the bed, contentedly sipping the tea they had brought with them.
'You said you were English,' Ferne recalled. 'And yet you speak as though you've been here for some time.'
'Over thirty years,' Hope told her.
'Do you have any children?'
'Six. All sons.'
She said it with an air of exasperated irony that made Ferne smile and say, 'Do you ever wish you had daughters?'
Hope chuckled. 'When you have six sons, you have no time to think of anything else. Besides, I have six daughters-in-law and seven grandchildren.
'When our last son married, a few months ago, Toni and I decided to go on our travels. Recently we've been in Milan to see some of his relatives. Toni was very close to his other brother, Taddeo, until he died a few years ago. Dante is Taddeo's elder son, and he's coming back to Naples with us for a visit. He's a bit of a madman, as you'll discover while you're staying with us.'
'I can't impose on you any further.'
'My dear, you have no money or passport. If you don't stay with us, just what are you going to do?'
'It just seems dreadful for you to be burdened with me.'
'But I shall love having you. We can talk about England. I love Italy, but I miss my own country, and you can tell me how things are there now.'
'Ah, that's different, if there's something I can do for you.'
'I look forward to you staying with us a long time. Now, I must get some sleep.'
She got into the lower bunk. Ferne climbed to the top one, and in a few minutes there was peace and darkness.
Ferne lay listening to the hum of the train speed through the night, trying to get her bearings. It seemed such a short time since she'd made the impulsive decision to leave England. Now she was here, destitute, reliant on strangers.
While she was pondering the strange path her life had taken recently, the rhythm of the train overtook her and she fell asleep.
She awoke to find herself desperately thirsty, and remembered that the snack bar was open all night. Quietly she climbed down and groped around in the darkness for her robe.
The three euros she'd found would just be enough for a drink. Holding her breath and trying not to waken Hope, she crept out into the corridor and made her way to the dining-car.
She was in luck. The snack bar was still open, although the tables were deserted and the attendant was nodding off.
'I'll have a bottle of mineral water, please,' she said thankfully. 'Oh dear, four euros. Do you have a small one?'
'I'm afraid the last small bottle has gone,' the attendant said apologetically.
'Oh no!' It came out as a cry of frustration.
'Can I help?' asked a voice behind her.
She turned and saw Dante.
'I'm on the cadge for money,' she groaned. 'Again! I'm desperate for something to drink.'
'Then let me buy you some champagne.'
'No, thank you, just some mineral water.'
'Champagne is better,' he said in the persuasive voice of a man about to embark on a flirtation.
'No, water is better when you're thirsty,' she said firmly.
'Then I can't persuade you?'
'No,' she said, getting cross. 'You can't persuade me.
What you can do is step out of my way so that I can leave. Goodnight.'
'I apologise,' he said at once. 'Don't be angry with me, I'm just fooling.' To the bartender he added, 'Serve the lady whatever she wants, and I'll have a whisky.'
He slipped an arm about her, touching her lightly but firmly enough to prevent her escape, and guided her to a seat by the window. The barman approached and she seized the bottle of water, threw back her head and drank deeply.
'That's better,' she said at last, gasping slightly. 'I should be the one apologising. I'm in a rotten temper, but I shouldn't take it out on you.'