Venice is high on April Stockwood’s list of romantic ports of call. Things get off to an ominous start when she arrives in Italy and a mishap leaves her with no place to stay. But her bad karma turns into a lucky break when she reconnects with Hayden Calloway.
Now a diplomat with the American consulate, Hayden was April’s greatest crush when they attended high school together in Philadelphia. Suddenly, her Italian vacation is taking on thrilling new dimensions as Hayden shows her a side of the city most tourists never see.
Did April travel halfway around the world to find the love of her life? Or is her lover—a man with secrets—too good to be true?
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THE NEXT BEST THING
By Sandra Kitt
ARABESQUE BOOKSCopyright © 2005 Sandra Kitt
All right reserved.
Chapter OneApril Stockwood began smiling the moment she got off the plane.
"I can't believe it. I'm actually in Venice," she said.
"You're not in Venice. You're at Marco Polo airport," her friend Stephanie grumbled, adjusting her heavy shoulder bag, a tote, and a jacket.
"Close enough," April said, as she and Stephanie joined the hordes of travelers headed for immigration and passport control; one line for "naturals," another for foreign visitors. Most of the passengers were looking a little worse for wear after the nearly eight-hour trip across the Atlantic in the middle of the night. But despite the fact that it was barely dawn, passengers were chattering in half a dozen languages.
"Signora?" April heard the impatient voice of the airport guard directing her to an available line. With her freshly minted passport in hand, she stepped forward.
"Buon giorno," she said carefully to the young, uniformed customs officer.
Rather than responding, he efficiently leafed through the document and stamped one of the many blank pages. He slid the passport back to April without once raising his gaze, and with a careless wave of his hand, dismissed her. April stepped aside to wait for Stephanie.
"He wasn't very friendly," April commented as they continued through the rest of the newly built terminal toward baggage claims.
"April, you're the only person in the universe I know who wakes up and hits the ground running. What is your problem? It's way too early in the morning to be cheerful."
"I've never been to Europe before. I'm excited."
"Yeah, I got that part," Stephanie mumbled, stifling a yawn. "You should be glad the agent didn't find a reason to ask a lot of questions."
"He didn't even look to see if I was the person in the photograph."
Stephanie shook her head patiently, rolling her eyes. "You hardly look like you've come to overthrow the government. These agents must be bored as hell. They're not interested in your life story, girl."
Just then they both heard Stephanie's name announced over a PA system.
"Did you hear that?" April asked. "We just stepped off the plane and already someone is looking for you."
"I can't imagine who," Stephanie said. Without breaking her stride, she headed towards the information counter. She identified herself and was handed a phone.
While she waited patiently, April chalked up Stephanie's lack of sympathy and enthusiasm to cranky cynicism. Stephanie had often told her that business travel was not a paid-for vacation. No matter. April was eternally grateful that she'd been asked to tag along to keep her friend company. She had no intention of confessing that just heading out to Philadelphia International Airport the night before had made her giddy with anticipation.
She didn't pay much attention to Stephanie's conversation, only guessing the call was not from Stephanie's former boyfriend, Harrison.
"Can't it wait a few days?" April heard Stephanie ask with some annoyance, continuing her conversation despite the distraction of all the noise around them. "I've already cleared customs. I was hoping to get the first meeting over with this afternoon ..."
April glanced around at the other travelers. She felt a vague disappointment that everyone looked pretty much the same. Except for the occasional colorful attire of an African, or of someone from the Middle East, there was little to distinguish one nationality from another. She glanced down at her black stretch pants, boxy blue sweater, and denim jacket. On her feet were sturdy half boots. She'd left her sneakers home because she'd read that European women didn't wear sneakers or jeans. But were her shoulder-length dreadlocks, tinted blond, a dead giveaway that she was American?
"... You are not serious. Right this minute?"
April followed Stephanie's restless movements with concern as Stephanie finished the call.
"What's up?" April asked. "I wasn't trying to listen, but it sounded like ..."
"I have to fly to Milan," Stephanie informed her after she handed the phone back to the agent and started towards the exit. Another officer asked to see their passports again before directing them through a door that led to baggage claims.
"I know. You already told me you're going at the end of the ..."
"No. I have to leave right now."
The conveyor belt began to churn into motion, signaling the arrival of luggage. Stephanie turned to watch for the bags belonging to her and April. Spotting the two suitcases, she yanked them from the moving carousel.
April stared at her. "You mean ... right now?"
Stephanie pulled up the handle on her suitcase and began to wheel it behind her. "Yeah. Ain't this a bitch? I have to go book a flight to Milan and get there as soon as I can."
April started after her, her own suitcase in tow. "Wait ... does this mean I'm not going with you?"
Stephanie stopped, and turned to face April. "No, you're not. But don't worry. I'm only going to be away today, I think. I'll catch up with you at the hotel some time tomorrow."
A swirl of apprehension roiled through April's stomach. This unexpected change of plans meant that she would be alone for twenty-four hours in a strange city where she didn't speak the language.
"What happened?" April asked, tamping down her initial urge to beg to go along.
"There was some sort of mix-up between my company's Italian handbag designer and an order meant for the Furla boutique in Philly. I was going to Milan after our trip to meet with him anyway. It's just that it has to happen today." Stephanie gave April a determined glance. "This is an important account and I can't afford to lose it."
"Of course not," April agreed.
"I'm really sorry about this. After I book my flight, I'll explain how to get to our hotel. You go ahead and check in. I probably won't get back to Venice until sometime tomorrow, but you'll be okay until then, right?"
What were the options? Stephanie was in Italy on business. She, on the other hand, was along for the ride-to hang out, enjoy the sights, and have some great pasta. She had blithely followed Stephanie, thinking that all she had to do was show up and bring lots of money, not realizing until now that she had expected Stephanie, an experienced traveler, to make her trip easy and comfortable.
"No problem," April replied dutifully, determined that she could do this.
* * *
After leaving the arrivals wing of the terminal, they headed to departures. Elegant shops lined the causeway. April was staring at the beautiful, luxury goods when, without warning, a man collided into her. Her shoulder bag slipped down her arm and turned over, spilling wallet, passport, birth-control pills, lipstick, and mints. Apologizing, the man helped her retrieve her things before quickly hurrying on.
"I thought the Italians were supposed to be laid-back and calm?" April asked.
"He wasn't Italian," Stephanie informed her. "Probably East European, from the accent."
She began talking nonstop as she weaved her way through the crowd to get to the ticket counter, explaining that there were no cars or motorbikes or buses in Venice and how April was to get to the hotel. People either walked the maze of narrow, winding streets, or made use of a system of waterbuses called vaporetti that traveled up and down the Grand Canal. April's sense of humor quickly returned. Stephanie had just given her her first lesson in Italian.
At the Alitalia counter, April waited as Stephanie negotiated a seat on the very next flight leaving Venice for Milan. She was impressed by Stephanie's savvy and self-confidence. When they'd first met, almost seven years earlier, it had been during Stephanie's struggles to balance a growing career as a buyer with being a single mother to her then-twelve-year-old son, Chazz. Stephanie's concerns had eventually become hers when the need finally arrived to make major changes in her own life, April reflected. That included everything from a career move to divorce to managing custodial arrangements for her daughter, Anesa, with her ex-husband, Sinclair.
"How long before boarding?" Stephanie asked the agent.
April, listening to the answer, realized that she and Stephanie had fifteen minutes together before Stephanie had to clear security and head for her departure gate.
"I don't know where I'll be staying in Milan," Stephanie said. "But I'll call and let you know later. Let me show you where to get the Alilaguna motoscafi to the hotel stop. It's a smaller boat than a vaporetti and it makes fewer stops. These boats are just like using the bus or subway back home. Just read the signs and watch for your stop."
Stephanie waited while April exchanged some American dollars for euros. At the tourist booth April purchased both a seven-day vaporetti pass and an Alilaguna ticket. The agent gave her a map of the system, pointing out her stop. He spoke in halting but understandable English.
"Very easy," he said. "You go to San Marco Zaccaria. Then you walk."
"Grazie," April said gratefully when he had marked her map and handed it back to her.
"Prego." The agent nodded with a smile.
Stephanie chuckled as they turned away. "I can see you're not going to have any trouble. Just keep smiling and use prego a lot. It means both 'thank you' and 'please.'"
"By the time you come back tomorrow I'll be fluent," April said dryly.
"By the time I get back you'll probably have two or three Italian men trailing after you. I've heard that they find African-American women very attractive."
"Really? I guess that's nice to know, Steph, but I'm not here to get picked up. You come to Italy all the time. I never heard you talk about any guy falling all over you."
"Doesn't mean it never happened," Stephanie responded coyly.
At home that would have been a lead-in April wouldn't have let go, but it was time for Stephanie to make her flight. As they stood just outside security, April smiled reassuringly.
"Don't worry about me if I'm not in when you call later. I've got a map, a dictionary, and I'm good to go. I hope everything's okay in Milan. Hurry back so we can start having fun."
"I will. Be careful, April. I'll see you tomorrow."
April watched Stephanie disappear, her confidence moments ago replaced by focus and purpose. She glanced around at the hundreds of travelers, many of them apparently traveling alone. There was no sign that any one of them was nervous about their ability to get from point A to point B, and she wasn't going to be either. So she was in a new place and didn't know her way around. She knew how to read, how to ask questions, and how to yell loud and clear for help if it came to that.
April also recognized that a part of her was actually excited by the unexpected turn of events. She'd faced other challenges before, some with far more serious implications. With renewed confidence, she headed out of the terminal.
There was a line for the Alilaguna at the quayside outside the terminal. In a moment of confusion, not knowing if the boat already boarding was the one she needed or not, April hesitated. The boat crew spoke only Italian. It didn't immediately occur to her to just give the name of her stop. There was a final rush as passengers with luggage aggressively shoved onto the last available space and the small craft slowly motored away. April stood, alone on the wharf, feeling foolish and adrift.
The quay filled again with new passengers and more luggage as a second craft arrived. Everyone surged forward ready to board. April, holding tightly to her suitcase, approached the young man tossing suitcases and bags to a fellow crewman on deck.
"Zaccaria?" she yelled.
"San Marco?" the worker shouted right back, not breaking stride in his loading of luggage.
April thought quickly and said "Si."
The man nodded and motioned her aboard. The boat rocked and bumped against the wharf as April gingerly stepped onto the deck and found her balance. The small boat was crowded, and she couldn't avoid being jostled or finding herself squeezed against partitions, piled luggage, and other passengers. Hoping she didn't look like a rank amateur, April found a small corner to stand in, copying the behavior of those around her who managed to find something to hold onto or lean against. She was able to look out over the bow to the shore. A flimsy nylon rope tied across the ramp entrance to the boat was the only barrier from the possibility of accidentally falling into the water.
After a quick covert glance, April realized that there were old men and women, children and toddlers, and young parents-carrying sleeping infants and wheeling their strollers-for whom this was a perfectly normal way to get around.
The boat rumbled to life, and the small craft, packed with sixty or seventy passengers and half as many pieces of luggage, slowly pulled away from the wharf and began to motor down the waterway. She turned her attention to the shore, unable to keep from smiling at the incredible realization that she was actually in Venice and that she was, not so nonchalantly, boating up the Grand Canal. For her it was history come to life before her very eyes, and she was there! Along both shorelines were magnificent palazzos and villas that had once belonged to Italian princes. She was thrilled at the prospects of walking the ancient streets.
"First time in Venice?"
April turned to find that the deep British accent belonged to a pleasant-looking man in his 50's. Like the actor Alan Rickman from Die Hard; with glasses, but heavier, she thought.
"I was hoping it didn't show," April confessed good-naturedly.
"My wife, Lilly, and I make a game of it," he said, putting an arm around the shoulders of a woman to identify her. She had a small knapsack on her back and was holding a camera. "We enjoy watching the expression on the faces of newcomers as the boat travels up the canal. You looked positively ... awed."
"I guess it's fair to assume you've been here before," April commented.
"Andrew and I come every year," his wife said. "We eat our way from one end of the city to the other. We tell the kids they can join us if they want. Of course, we hope that they don't. Where are you staying?"
"Good choice," the man approved. "We rent an apartment for three weeks every year that's pretty close to your hotel. My name is Andrew St. Clair, and this is my wife, Lilly."
"I'm April Stockwood."
He glanced around. "Are you alone?"
"I'll be meeting a friend," April said.
"Venice is a very romantic city," Lilly added.
April didn't bother to correct Lilly's assumption.
Excerpted from THE NEXT BEST THING by Sandra Kitt Copyright © 2005 by Sandra Kitt. Excerpted by permission.
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