In Italy, the best attractions are always off the beaten path . . .
Mamie Weber doesn’t know why she survived that terrible car accident five years ago. Physically, she has only a slight reminder—but emotionally, the pain is still fresh. Deep down she knows her husband would have wanted her to embrace life again. Now she has an opportunity to do just that, spending two weeks in Tuscany reviewing a tour company for her employer’s popular travel guide series. The warmth of the sun, the centuries-old art, a villa on the Umbrian border—it could be just the adventure she needs.
But with adventure comes the unexpected . . . like discovering that her entire tour group is made up of aging
ex-hippies reminiscing about their Woodstock days. Or finding herself drawn to the guide, Julian, who is secretly haunted by a tragedy of his own, and seems to disapprove any time she tries something remotely risky—like an impromptu scooter ride with a local man.
As they explore the hilltop towns of Tuscany, Mamie knows that when this blissful excursion is over, she’ll have to return to reality. But when you let yourself wander, life can take some interesting detours . . .
Praise for Sharon Struth
“Struth has a gift for layering stories within stories while keeping them all connected.”
“Struth is an author to watch!”
--Laura Drake, author of RITA-award winner The Sweet Spot
“Sharon Struth writes a good story about love and loss. She knows her characters and has a path she wants them to take.” --Eye on Romance
“The plot is refreshing and will definitely keep the reader turning page after page.”
“A great plot, and it’s very well written. It comes with a strong recommendation and is worth picking up for a nice treat.” –RT Book Reviews, 4 Stars
About the Author
When she’s not working, she and her husband happily sip their way through the scenic towns of the Connecticut Wine Trail, travel the world, and enjoy spending time with their precious pets and two grown daughters. She writes from the friendliest place she’s ever lived, Bethel, Connecticut. For more information, including where to find her published essays, please visit www.sharonstruth.com or visit her blog, Musings from the Middle Ages & More at www.sharonstruth.wordpress.com
Read an Excerpt
The Sweet Life
By Sharon Struth
KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP.Copyright © 2017 Sharon Struth
All rights reserved.
Mamie Weber's hands trembled as she shoved aside piles of neatly stacked clothes inside her luggage. Beneath her underwear, she found the well-worn Yankees cap, tossed it on to cover her unwashed hair, and tugged her ponytail through the back opening. She left her luggage on the bed and hurried to the hotel room door, officially fifteen minutes late. She inhaled a deep breath to steady her nerves and hoped the bus hadn't left without her.
One step into the hallway, she stopped. A room key. She propped the door open with her hip and slipped off her backpack. Halfway through her search of the pockets, she remembered seeing it on the nightstand after waking from the nap that now made her late.
She hurried inside, swiped the plastic key card off the nightstand and ran back to the door. As her hand fell on the knob, the shrill ring of the phone made her pause.
For half a second, urgency made her ignore the call and she turned the knob. Her boss had said she might call, but so soon? What if it was an emergency at home, like her parents?
She let the knob go and hurried to phone. "Hello?"
After seconds of silence, a man with a deep voice and American accent said, "Uh, hello. Wanderlust Excursions here. I'm looking for Felix Carrol, room 324?"
"Felix is ..." Crap. Hadn't anybody called the tour company to tell them she'd be taking Felix's place?
"This is Julian Gregory. Tour director for a group who is expecting him." He paused, as if he expected her to say something. She debated between lying about the change in plans until she got downstairs or telling him the truth now. "Is this Mr. Carrol's room?" He sounded annoyed now. "We have a bus full of people waiting to leave and he's the only one missing. So —"
"He'll be right down." She hung up and hurried out to the hallway. Explanations like this were better face-to-face and she was determined to get on that bus.
At the elevator, she caught a glimpse of herself in a mirror on the nearby wall. Wrinkled peasant blouse and the same yoga pants she'd worn on the plane. Not exactly the Italian high fashion she'd seen in photos. An outfit that screamed to the world she didn't care enough to even tidy up her appearance. Exactly how she'd felt since that damn car accident.
She slapped the elevator button again, afraid she'd slip into the despair that almost stopped her from accepting this assignment in the first place. As she glanced around the elevator alcove, she saw a sign for the staircase and headed for it.
Each quick step aggravated her sore hip, but she worked hard to concentrate on the bigger problem of getting on this bus, not the accident.
Like how should she deal with the tour director. He expected Felix. Even though she'd packed all his documents, including a faxed note transferring the ticketing paperwork ownership to her, Mamie assumed Felix had called to confirm the change.
Felix Carrol, a.k.a. The Covert Critic, was Mamie's favorite author to edit for in her job at Atlas Publishing. He traveled the globe incognito while reviewing tours for his bestselling series with the same pseudonym. One month he'd be on a safari in Kenya, the next swimming with the sharks in Bora Bora, another mingling with the rich in St. Tropez. And now Mamie had agreed to stand in for him when he canceled last minute.
She entered the marble-floored lobby, glancing around for someone from the tour. Outside the glass doors was a gold mini-bus parked with the words Wanderlust Excursions emblazoned on the side. As she pushed through the doors, the hot July air blasted like a slap across the face. She stood on the sidewalk staring at the full bus, prepared to make a case worthy of Clarence Darrow if the paperwork she carried wasn't good enough.
This trip was for work, but it also would test the waters of the life she'd been wasting. Inhaling a breath, Mamie slipped the long strap of her purse across her chest and rushed to the open bus door.
In the driver's seat sat a square-faced man with a full Romanesque nose and short, dark hair. He greeted her with a wide smile. "Ciao, bella."
She climbed the steps and smiled back. "Hello. I mean, Ciao. Sorry I'm late."
Before the nice man in the driver's seat could respond, a man standing about halfway down the aisle said, "I'm sorry, miss. You've got the wrong bus."
Whoever he was, his cargo shorts and faded Led Zeppelin T-shirt didn't carry any authority. But he held a clipboard, and his tone suggested he meant business. His Gaelic-looking face carried a slight boyish quality, hardened into a manly appearance due to his trimly cut mustache and beard. Wavy hair the color of cognac peeked out from beneath a gold cap with orange and blue lettering reading Wanderlust Excursions.
"I'm sure the hotel front desk can help you find the right tour." He gave her a now-hurry-along smile and turned back to the man he'd been talking to.
"Did I just talk to you on the phone?"
He lifted his chin and raised a brow. "We're waiting for Felix." His gaze traveled her from top to bottom then he looked her in the eyes. "I'm pretty sure you're not Felix?"
"No, but ..." Mamie became aware of the silence and scanned the passengers.
Everyone in the full bus stared back. Quiet. Curious. She squirmed and her gaze drifted back to the man who seemed to be in charge.
"No. I'm not Felix, but if this is Wanderlust Excursions, it's where I'm supposed to be."
He squinted. "Wait. Are you the woman who answered Felix's phone?"
"Yes. I'm taking his place on the tour."
He snorted. A short, patronizing laugh. "I don't think so."
"Because you're clearly not Felix."
"But he transferred his vouchers to me."
"Nobody told me. Our company rules state that purchased seats are not transferrable without prior home office approval." He frowned and studied her again. "Besides, this is a specialized tour and you're not a member of this group. Felix is."
"How do you know I'm not?"
His lip curled into a little smirk. "Did you attend Woodstock?"
"Is there another one?"
"Well, no, but ..." Mamie scanned the other passengers more carefully. Other than the guide — everyone else was probably over fifty-five. Maybe even over sixty. "What group are they part of?"
"They are" — the guide, whose company sponsored tag read Julian, glanced at his clipboard — "the Woodstock Wanderers."
"Felix may not have been part of it either." Mamie never heard him mention them before.
"Are you kidding? Felix was one of our founder members." A man with thinning white hair, dark-rimmed glasses, and a full white beard sitting in the front seat winked at Mamie. "Bernie" in capital letters sat square in the center of a nametag with a tie-dyed background. Beneath his name it said, "Favorite Woodstock Song: 'Let's Go Get Stoned,' Joe Cocker."
Mamie would've never put Bernie together with that song, but ... The bus's silence and everyone watching her jarred her back to the problem at hand. "Felix never mentioned your group to me."
Guess she knew Felix but didn't know him. The truth about how she and Felix knew each other, though, wasn't something she could share.
So she did the only thing she could do. Staring Julian square in the eye, she said, "Uncle Felix wanted me to take this trip. I'm his niece. He insisted I go in his place."
"His niece, huh?" The tour director rubbed the back of his neck and considered her again. He shook his head. "I'm sorry he's decided not to come, but on the transfer, I can't budge. Rules are rules."
A thin gentleman sitting a couple rows behind Bernie, with salt-and-pepper patches of hair above his ears, piped in. "Julian. Dude. Can't you just go with the flow? She looks harmless. Let her come."
Mamie squinted. His tag read Bob, but before she could read more, the others joined in with choruses of "yeahs," and she looked away.
"You know what they say, Julian." A woman with curly brown hair, peace sign earnings, and a pretty smile said, "Don't sweat the small stuff."
Mamie noted her nametag read Martha and her favorite Woodstock song was "Suite Judy Blue Eyes" by Crosby, Still, and Nash.
Julian pursed his lips. "All due respect Martha, me losing my job isn't exactly small stuff."
Martha grinned slyly and winked. "We promise to keep it a secret from the boss." She glanced around. "Right everybody?"
Another chorus of loud "yeahs" filled the bus.
One slim man with thinning hair who sat in the last row fist bumped the air. "We aren't afraid of the man."
The passengers murmured and nodded, complete agreement on that one. Mamie loved this solidarity. Though she'd never considered herself a hippie — more like a loner — she had an incredible urge to be part of this group.
Julian watched them, frowning. He refocused his attention on Mamie. "Sorry. I'm going to have to ask you to step out so we can start. We're already running late."
Normally, Mamie respected timeliness, schedules, and rules. But she had a job to do. A mission to accomplish.
"Please. My uncle, he really wanted me to go and —"
Julian took several swift steps to the front of the bus and stopped close to her. He dropped his voice. "Listen, this isn't personal. The last thing I need is to lose this job. Do me a solid and go see if you can get any of your money back."
She quietly replied, "You don't understand. I need to go on this tour."
He narrowed his hard green eyes, but before he could say a thing, a chant filled the air.
"Let her stay. Let her stay. Let her stay."
A blond-haired woman with a cherub face who sat at Bernie's side spoke up over the chant. "Doesn't she remind you of Tracy, Bern?" Her nametag read Sandra and her favorite Woodstock song was "Amazing Grace" by Arlo Guthrie. She patted Julian's arm in a very maternal way. "Tracy's our daughter. We'd love having some young energy around. Tracy's just too busy working to spend any time with us."
Julian's lower lip dropped. He drew in a deep breath, looked at Mamie, and motioned to the door. "Let's talk outside."
She turned and headed off the bus. Little did he know, she wasn't about to back down. Nothing would stop her from getting on this bus or making the most of this adventure. Two very good reasons existed for fighting the good fight.
The memory of her husband and daughter.
* * *
Julian grabbed his satchel off his seat and stopped near Beppe. "Keep the bus running."
"Don't be hasty," the driver said, his smile almost a leer. "There's no ring on her finger, sì amico?"
The passengers up front laughed, adding to Julian's annoyance. For a man with a wife and two kids, Beppe never missed a chance to ogle a nice-looking woman. "Head in the game, Beppe. We're working."
He lifted his dark brows, clearly surprised. Julian's childhood friend, who'd found him this job, knew him better than most. Normally a cute, single female would've captured Julian's attention. Not today.
He hurried down the steps. Holding it together since this morning hadn't been easy. An old friend from the show had called him at breakfast with a warning. Seemed Gary Simon was considering asking him back to the show. The shrewd producer was getting pounded by audiences who wanted more of Exploring the World with Eddie, not the replacement host they'd found.
But Eddie was dead — at least in Julian's mind.
Julian's television alter ego, Eddie Morrison, was the thrill-seeking adventurer and former star of Exploring the World with Eddie. Nobody knew Julian Gregory, but a wide audience around the globe knew his fake persona.
Eddie feared nothing, lived dangerously, and mocked the word risk. Julian hated Eddie. Perhaps even more than he hated himself these days.
He stepped onto the sidewalk, stopping at a bench. The woman waited near the hotel doors and searched through her purse, a very determined gleam in her eyes. Over the years, he'd handled bigger problems than a stubborn female. A black caiman alligator in the rainforest. A run-in with Hezbollah militants in Lebanon. One persistent passenger would be easy.
He placed his satchel onto the bench and looked inside for his employee handbook. Other directors for Wanderlust Excursions, including his roommate, had told him the tour company owner had no sympathy for employees who didn't follow her rules. Julian kept this with him at all times. He located the book and opened to the page listing five simple rules Claudia expected her staff to follow.
No deviating from the predefined tour schedule or route.
Only previously authorized passengers can board our buses. Transfers of tickets on site are not allowed.
All stories guides share with our travelers must be true. We encourage passing along appropriate stories of your own travels.
No kickbacks from local merchants, who will often bribe you in order to lure your guests into their stores.
No fraternizing with the passengers off tour.
Before Julian had watched Carlos Lopez die in a wing suit jumping accident, he'd have scoffed at those rules. Anybody's rules.
Now, he desperately needed to live within the constraints of them.
Fear and guilt trapped him daily for the last twelve months. He could've stopped the jump that day. But he hadn't. What had Carlos called the winds? Questionable? Self-hatred pounded at Julian's head. What an idiot. A self-absorbed idiot.
Bravado that once led him to take on the show's challenges disappeared after that moment, the reason he was fired. This tour company provided the perfect hideaway to his shameful existence. Its strict policies helped him regain control of the life he'd forfeited when he'd encouraged Carlos to jump.
Footsteps nearby drew him back to the problem at hand. The woman clutched an envelope and lifted her chin as she neared, her legs long and frame lithe. She had a slight limp, a fact he hadn't picked up on until now. Yet it didn't undercut the bull-like determination in her gaze.
"Now listen," he said before she could speak. Best to keep an unpredictable bull grounded. "I'm not an unreasonable guy."
Her large brown eyes softened. "Did I say you were? It's just that the others don't seem to care if I'm on this bus or not. Bernie and Sandra, they'd even feel like they have their daughter along. It obviously means a lot to them. Wouldn't my presence make them happier travelers?"
"I told you. Rules are big in this outfit. Look." He offered her the handbook, opened to the rule page. While she scanned them, he said, "If it was my company, I might let you stay. But as you can see, miss —"
"Mamie." She looked up from the book. "Mamie Weber."
Julian found himself drawn to the innocence in her eyes, hiding behind her tough facade. "My problem is that you've come out of nowhere and want a seat on my bus. I don't have one piece of paper telling me I shouldn't still be waiting for this Felix Carrol."
She opened the envelope in her hands, pulled out some papers, and thrust them in Julian's hands. "I have the entire trip itinerary, with Felix's name on it. And a faxed note from Felix saying he's transferring the trip to me. The hotel gave me the room."
He flipped past the itinerary to the faxed note. "Anybody could've written that letter. If the passenger who booked the trip didn't take the time to call it in, well ..." He worked hard to think of an excuse as a bead of sweat dribbled past his ear. Julian batted away the moisture, not sure when it got so hot outside.
He glanced up to find her staring at him.
"Do I look dishonest?"
Of course she didn't. He reread the note from the original passenger. The package contained the full itinerary. Everything seemed legit. He removed his phone to call Claudia.
"Who are you calling?"
She frowned. "But if she says no, then I can't go."
"She probably will."
As he dialed the phone, he could see her lips pressed tight and she started to pace. Finally, Nicola, Claudia's assistant, answered. Julian explained his problem.
After a minute of searching the office, Nicola returned to the phone. "Nein. Nobody contacted us regarding a transfer on that passenger."
Damn. "Nothing, huh?" He glanced up at Mamie and caught her eyes watering. "Okay. Thanks."
A sadness Julian hadn't expected took him by surprise, overpowering him with the idea this trip of hers was about something more. "Why are you really so eager to go on this trip?"
"I told you. My uncle wanted me to ..." She stopped. "Why are you shaking your head?"
"The truth. It'll go a long way with me."
She wouldn't meet his gaze for a long moment, but then she glanced up. Dark circles that he hadn't noticed before hung beneath her eyes. "This trip is a chance of a lifetime. I may never get here again." She drew in a breath and, he swore, she trembled. "It took everything for me to board the plane and fly here." She rested her soft hand on his forearm, the effect cracking a piece of him that always stayed tough. Or maybe that strong facade had been broken this year and made vulnerable to more damage.
Excerpted from The Sweet Life by Sharon Struth. Copyright © 2017 Sharon Struth. Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
A journey to self-forgiveness. 3.75 stars “The Sweet Life” by Sharon Struth is a gentle woman’s fiction story that addresses survivor’s guilt and learning to live again instead of exist. The author provides a delicious trip through parts of Italy under the guise of a tour mostly populated by a group of former Woodstock fans with the last-minute addition of a woman conducting a covert evaluation of the tour—provided she can get past the by-the-book guide. I enjoyed the slow burn and gradual acceptance that marks the relationship between the hero and heroine against the beautiful backdrop of Tuscany. The tasty dishes described and the picturesque landmarks visited by the group make me want to see the country and experience these things for myself. I ached for the tragedies that have shaped both main characters and rooted for them to find a way to enjoy life again but the ethical struggles were a bit frustrating to me and I wasn’t thrilled by the abrupt and open-ended resolution of the story. It also would have been nice if some of the secondary characters were developed a little more, but I enjoyed the glimpses of them I did get. This was an enjoyable way to armchair travel and gain an appreciation of both the food and people of Italy while accompanying a couple of people on their own emotional journey. A copy of this title was provided to me for review
A lovely, picturesque journey through Tuscany that brings together two lost souls in need of a change in life who find out that some of the best, most life filled adventures could be those that does not challenge you physically yet still scares you immensely. When this book was first introduced to me, the blurb that accompanied the invitation reminded me of a movie 'Under the Tuscan Sun'. That movie touched my heart and was an inspirational experience to me, so I was eager to read this book to see if it could be as riveting and thought-provoking, even life-changing as the movie was to me. The pleasant flow of the story with expressive writing makes it enjoyable to read the sweet story that is appropriate for all ages. The scenery from the tour in Italy opened up in my mind's eyes, and the beautiful, colorful landscapes were vividly clear in my mind. To visit Italy again, even via the story, was such a pleasure. The views, the attractions, the people, the lifestyle, the food, the smells, the chaos of traffic, and the joie de vivre of the locals filled my senses making me smile. The cast of characters on this journey were jovial, genuine, and true individuals. They seemed to have left their worries behind, and were just enjoying the moment, the company and everything the trip would offer them. Mamie Weber was escaping her past, the grief of losing her family and trying to learn to embrace life again, to challenge herself both physically and mentally, to be out there, be vulnerable, to be brave, and to learn to trust again, not only others but herself as well. Julian is in mourning as well. His regrets from his past, adventure-filled life are hunting his sleep and mind. He leans on his new job's rules and regulations to have control in his life, a control that Mamie challenges with her own attempts to live fully again. The journey is a sweet, delightful ride, filled with emotions from bliss and glee to angst and tears. The biggest challenge both Mamie and Julian have to face is their past and the fears that spring from the memories. After such an enjoyable expedition with the unique characters, the abrupt ending felt odd, leaving me wanting more in a sense of conclusion. A pilgrimage to find your true self again, to learn to trust and embrace life fully, while enjoying the gorgeous scenery of Tuscany. An entertaining and charming tale with a smooth, easygoing flow ~ Four Spoons
Favorite Quotes: My cab ride from the airport was like the chase scene in The French Connection. “Jeesh, Prince Charming, is that a sword in your pocket or are you just happy to see me?” … “I don’t remember Cinderella being this sarcastic.” You’ve shown me the most extraordinary pleasures from the most ordinary days. Now let’s try the unexpected together.” My Review: The Sweet Life had a unique and interesting premise as it chronicled a Woodstock survivors group – who called themselves The Wanderers - traveling through Tuscany on a tour. In addition to an entertaining story, I was treated to a well-detailed travel log with a taunting accounting of their mouthwatering menus and delectable treats. I had several urges to renew my passport while reading - just to see David again might be worth the horrific flight. The characters were a quirky grouping of senior travelers, a middle-aged woman named Mamie who popped up unexpectedly as a substitute passenger. Mamie had a secret about her substitution, one she was legally prohibited from disclosing, which caused her discomfort. The primary and secondary characters were likable and colorfully detailed. Ms. Struth’s storyline was mild enough for my elderly mother’s book club, easy to follow, and alternated from angsty to sweet with occasional hits of humor.
I'm not going to go into the romance aspect of the book. Anyone who's read Sharon Struth's novels know that romance is a given, just like in life. It's all there for readers who love that love story, who want to feel all the feels. For me, The Sweet Life was Italy. The sights, the sounds, the smells and the food. Oh, the food! I had to make spaghetti and meatballs the day I started the book. Sharon Struth puts you right in Tuscany in a way that not only transports you to the crowded streets and vineyards, but surrounds you with them. Masterfully done. True to author's form, the romance aspect of the story was tempered with a bit more; in this case, the underlying theme of trust that permeates all her books gets another little twist--while normally-sensible Mamie is out to experience life in risky ways, like paragliding and scootering the dangerous streets of Italy, Julian has had enough of that in his life--to dire consequences. When the two start to fall for one another, they learn that risk-taking doesn't have to be physically dangerous to be scary as hell. Great start to a new series by this author.
Loved this story~ A very unique storyline with a great romance, a bit of humor, and some exceptional descriptive writing that brought Italy to life. These characters were incredibly fun and made the story unforgettable. Mamie is dreading going on the tour of Tuscany for her job. Luckily she's there with a group of aging hippies who all attended Woodstock and might be a little stuck in the 60's making the whole thing intriguing with their stories. Add to that Julian, the tour guide, who Mamie finds herself attracted to and the whole tour is better than she imagined it would be. Definitely a book I recommend to everyone.