Church bells chime in an ancient bell tower as architect Jordan Mayfair, from Savannah, Georgia, and her travel-writer uncle, Alexander Carlyle, arrive at Convento di Santa Francesca Firenze in Florence, Italy. Jordan expects the 15th century convent with its exquisite gardens to offer a safe and serene retreat from the crowded, bustling, touristy district of Europe’s premier Renaissance city, and anticipates a romantic interlude with Paul Broussard, charming patron of the arts, who is flying in from Paris, just for her.
But the polizia municipale are on site, investigating a burglary by jewel thieves, and a mugging has occurred outside the convent walls. Several guests of the convent are not who they seem to be, and one is soon dead. A suicide, the police say. Jordan suspects murder.
Her attempt to find justice for the victim leads her to discoveries as dark as the labyrinths of the convent that she explores with an architect’s eye, and as far-reaching as the spectacular Tuscan hills. But Jordan’s findings give little comfort as she uncovers the truth about Paul’s unstable daughter, Bella, who has come to Florence with evil intentions. In the third book of the Jordan Mayfair Mystery Series, treachery tears a prominent family apart, takes an innocent life, and threatens Jordan’s relationship with Paul that has evolved, through three books.
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Sunday morning, my first glimpse of Florence since I was twenty-one. Sunday morning in the spacious piazza, quiet, except for the chime of church bells from an ancient bell tower. My jet-lagged brain tried to take in everything, all at once. No sign to identify the Convento di Santa Francesca Firenze, but the GPS on our rental car had directed us to the imposing fifteenth-century convent. A white Alfa Romeo with a blue stripe and the words "Polizia Municipale" along the side pulled away from the curb as we took our luggage from the trunk of our Fiat. A waif-like teenager standing some distance away waited until the police car had departed before she came closer to us.
"Convento?" I said.
She said something in Italian, to which I could only reply, "Non capisco."
"Sí. It is the convent," she said.
So my Italian left something to be desired.
The girl gave the stark terra cotta façade a measuring gaze, then darted us an uncertain smile, hitched up her rucksack on her thin shoulder, and headed through the arched entrance. At the double wooden doors, she pushed a buzzer, and a loud click announced the door was unlocked. We filed in behind her, pulling our luggage-on-wheels.
"Exactly as I imagined," Alex declared.
I was traveling with Alex, my uncle, as I had done twice before. Travel-writer Alexander Carlyle was in Florence to research his third book, and I was here to keep an eye on him.
Not exactly as I had imagined, but it was a convent, after all, not a Ritz-Carlton.
We entered a grand space that brought to mind the nave of a cathedral but without any adornments. Gray tile floor, beige plaster walls, table with a faded cloth on it, scarred wooden bench, frayed chair. Alex's travel guides would always direct tourists to unusual places like the convent, in the not-so-touristy district called Oltrarno. Apparently, the nuns, the Franciscan Missionaries of Mary, rented rooms to help pay for their missionary work. Clean, safe lodging. Nothing fancy.
From an anteroom that appeared to be the office came an anxious voice. A statuesque nun in full gray-and-white habit, with a silver cross hanging from her neck, leaned toward a young woman seated at a computer. Her gestures were as animated as her speech, and I was reminded of Catholic school, where I was scolded regularly by the nuns. But the office worker didn't appear threatened. She nodded agreement and contributed a phrase here and there. The undercurrent of worry in the Sister's voice was unmistakable. Several times she said something about the polizia before she realized we were waiting, and exited through a side door.
Our new acquaintance was quick to approach the counter, but it was apparent from the exchange — not angry, but rapid-fire Italian — that there was no hurry. Her room was not ready. Nor were our rooms ready. I asked how long it would be. The answer — "Soon" — did not give comfort to this weary traveler.
"If you wish to get food, you may leave your luggage with me. Piazza Santo Spirito is not far. Or you can wait in the gardens. In the hall you will find cappuccino, coffee, many choices in the machine." The young woman was trying. And her accent was delightfully musical.
Alex and I agreed we weren't ready to be out and about. I remembered our car. With elaborate gestures, the young woman told me where to park, down a side street, then turn back behind the gardens.
Alex went with me, though I told him I could manage by myself. Sometimes I look after him, and sometimes he looks after me.
A stone wall covered with greenery obscured any view of the gardens, just the tops of a few trees. Several other cars were parked in the tiny gravel lot. A good thing we were in a Fiat, not an SUV. Alex pointed out the building adjacent to the parking area, speculating that it was probably where the nuns resided. Much more recently than the fifteenth century, the smaller structure had been built with materials and architectural elements similar to the building that housed our rooms. My attention was drawn to the windows, bordered with intricate stonework, while Alex talked about the nuns — only twelve left, he had read, while once there had been fifty.
We walked back around the convent and pushed the buzzer. Inside, I peeked in the office and told the young woman we would wait in the gardens. She directed us down a long hall.
Leaving the building through French doors, I had to catch my breath. The gardens were impeccably landscaped, with cobblestones marking a path through the grass, flowering bushes, gently-bending trees, and hedges that formed a maze. Soft breeze. Floral fragrance. The focal point was a large fountain with water flowing from the mouth of a lamb, its sweet face upturned.
Curled up on her side on one of the stone benches, her head resting on her rucksack, was the girl we had met, her name yet unknown to us. Her dark curly hair was tangled. Low-slung jeans and cropped top revealed a belly button with a ring that matched the ring in one eyebrow. Her blue rucksack was too clean, too new-looking for a runaway who had spent time on the streets — and she did, apparently, have a reservation here. In sleep, her face could have passed for a young child's. A butterfly swarmed around her and settled on her knee, where a hole in her jeans showed her skin.
And that was how I would think of Sophia Costa — Sophie — even when nightmares blurred my memories.CHAPTER 2
The word that came to mind when I saw my room was spartan. Not a monastic cell, but simple and frugal. Twin bed with a plain dark-blue coverlet, heavy old wooden desk and dresser — ebony wood, maybe — and a chair of a much lighter wood, not so old. A small closet, and a sink with a mirror and metal shelf above it. The drain pipe from the base of the sink to the wall was exposed, and a wastebasket had been placed under the trap.
The young office worker, Ivonna — I had asked her name, and it seemed to please her — had shown me to my room, most likely so I wouldn't get lost. It was by no means a straight shot from the first floor — officially the ground floor — more complicated than getting on the little elevator, getting off, going down the hall. This was a structure of intricate mazes that I would enjoy exploring, once I learned the way to and from my room.
Ivonna regarded the wastebasket and made an apologetic face. "A small — drip, drip — when the water drains. Luigi will repair it tomorrow. He has not been here for three days, I think. Luigi is our" — she gestured, groping for the word.
"Handyman? Maintenance man?"
She nodded. "I am sorry that we have no one else to repair these things. Luigi has been with the convent for many years. He is very devoted to his work. I do not know that he has ever missed even one day before this."
Noting the emotion in Ivonna's voice, I said, "I hope Luigi is all right."
"He was — he is OK. Today is Sunday, for family. La nonna prepares the big meal for all the children, grandchildren, aunts, uncles" — she let her voice trail off, gesturing as if to say, and more. "Sister Assunta said Luigi will be back tomorrow. He is well now, I think. I am sure he will take care of this — this leak."
"Not a problem," I said, but I couldn't help wondering what the real story was with Luigi.
No air conditioner, but the room was cool. The open window and the transom over the door — an added feature that dated back probably only to the early 1900s — provided good cross-ventilation.
And what a view! The shutters were open on the window that my architect's eye judged to be about twenty-four by thirty-six, something close to that. I wasn't sure standards for window sizes were in place in the fifteenth century. I do historic renovations in Savannah, but this convent — I had to get used to thinking Convento di Santa Francesca Firenze — this structure was three hundred years old when Savannah's first buildings went up. I leaned on the wide sill. No screens, but it felt safe. My room was on the second floor, officially, but it was the third story, high above the gardens, looking out on the tops of other multistory terra cotta buildings and a church with a colorful dome. A view worthy of a luxury hotel.
"What's the name of that church?" I asked, pointing to a distant spire.
Ivonna came up behind me to get a closer look and made a pouty face. "I'm sorry I don't know. So many churches in Florence. That one is not" — she gave an apologetic shrug — "not important."
She handed me the heavy key ring that looked like a barbell. I had a good weapon — a six-inch length of solid metal! Too bad we had to turn in our keys when we were going outside the convent. Ivonna pointed out the two keys attached — large one for my room, small one for my bathroom across the hall. "The bath is private, only yours," she said. "No one will go in except the woman who cleans in the mornings. I will show you."
The private bath was no more than four diagonal steps across the hall. Long, narrow, airy space with a small square window facing the street we'd used to drive around the building. Light-colored tile, shower stall and fixtures that might have been decades old, but not centuries.
Next to my room, directly across the hall from the bath was a large access panel. I would have paid no attention to it, but Ivonna was quick to identify a faint rumbling noise as "nothing in there but tubi." With both hands she made a picture in the air, something long and cylindrical.
"Pipes?" I recognized the sound and just hoped that my room, next to what was apparently a mechanical shaft, wouldn't be too noisy.
"Yes!" She laughed, and her plain face changed. She was a pretty girl when she laughed. Slender, about six inches shorter than my five-foot-ten, with shoulder-length brown hair. She wore a modest black dress and flats that would have suited a more matronly woman. I doubted she was more than twenty-five.
"I'm an architect, so I'm curious about the building," I said. "You won't mind if I ask questions, I hope."
"Not at all. Whatever you need, please ask." Turning to go, she reminded me, "Please remember to always lock the bathroom door." I appreciated the attention to safety, but, as I maneuvered the heavy, noisy, old-fashioned lock, I thought of the visit by the police. And Ivonna did tell me to ask questions, so I asked: "Can you tell me why the police were here?"
"Oh, it is nothing!" she said, but her voice, a little too breathless, didn't match her words. "Nothing to worry you. The polizia came about il furto, a — burglary — someone robbed a shop near Borgo San Frediano last night. We have many artisans in Oltrarno, you know. I think it was a shop where the artisan made jewelry."
The Oltrarno neighborhood, where the convent was located, was "old Florence," Alex had explained, the best place to become immersed in the day-to-day life of the residents, to get a feeling for where they lived and worked. We were south of the Arno River. North of the Arno was the more touristy area.
"So were the police just asking if you'd seen anything suspicious?" I said.
"Yes. That is why they came." Her nod seemed a little too eager. Still, it was reasonable to think the police would warn people in the neighborhood to be alert. It also made sense that the Sisters wouldn't want their guests to worry about their safety. The nun I'd seen in the office may have been complaining that the polizia's presence would cause alarm.
"Please do not worry, Signora. The convent is very safe. OK?"
"OK," I said, not completely convinced. "Thank you."
Ivonna gave another bright smile and left me to it.
* * *
Unpacking and putting away was easy in my spartan room. It was still early afternoon. Hard to say whether I was hungry. Exhausted, yes. Florence was six hours ahead of home — home being Savannah, Georgia, for me, and Atlanta for Alex. I'd left Savannah over twenty-four hours ago. I can never sleep on planes. Alex, with the aid of two glasses of red wine, had a restful sleep for three or four hours, the best I could tell.
I texted Alex, who had brought a cell phone on this trip, unlike our other trips, and we agreed to go out and look around. It wouldn't be a bad idea to get a light, late lunch. Ivonna gave us a map of the city and marked the route to Piazza Santo Spirito. "Many places to eat," she said.
And she was so right. We found the popular area with no trouble. So many outdoor eateries ringed the piazza that we simply chose the first one we came upon. At a table under a colorful umbrella, we shared a pizza — nothing like the pizzas back home. Much lighter. Next time, I reminded myself, I could probably eat the whole thing.
We each had a glass of wine, which measured about two fingers. "This is why the Italians can drink wine all day," Alex said.
Sitting down for lunch with a small glass of wine was relaxing, and also refreshing. I felt I could keep going till night. I knew the best way to handle jet leg was to stay awake the first day and then get a good night's sleep.
A Polizia Municipale car crept around the edge of the piazza, reminding me of the burglary in the Oltrarno neighborhood. I told Alex what Ivonna had said. He didn't share my curiosity. With an expression just short of scolding, he said, "Jordan, I hope you're not going to start imagining some sort of intrigue, as you have been known to do." "And for good reason," I reminded him, "but no, I'm not going to imagine anything. Inquiring minds want to know. That's all." I was not surprised that Alex ignored me.
He took out his little notebook. "Let's see what our day looks like tomorrow."
"I take it we have reservations for something."
"The Duomo. The museums are closed on Monday but not the Duomo." Alex had made a big production of getting advance reservations to the Duomo, the Uffizi, and the Accademia. The ticket lines for these landmarks were supposed to be long, even in September.
We spread out the map that Ivonna had given us and, by measuring how far we'd come from the convent to the Piazza Santo Spirito, we judged how far it would be to the Duomo. We lingered a while longer, polishing off a two-liter bottle of water that cost nearly as much as the wine. Alex gave me a little map lesson. He had spent several weeks in Florence when he was a young man and, though that was a long time ago, he remembered many of the sights. I had spent a semester in Italy — that also seemed long ago — but our group was based in Venice. Our time in Florence was limited to a few days. Architectural students sketching cathedrals, as I recalled.
Alex wasn't fluent in Italian but the names of the churches and museums rolled easily off his tongue. The piazzas dominated by the magnificent churches, Santa Croce and Santa Maria Novella, the Piazza della Signoria with its old Town Hall, and the Medici family's palace, the Pitti. We would see all of Florence's attractions, but Alex's travel guides were unique in that they always went beyond the main tourist attractions.
As he folded the map, he said, "And Tuesday, the Moretti Villa. A glimpse of the Tuscan region." His casual reference betrayed the expression in his blue eyes, the memories there, the anticipation of seeing the matriarch of the villa, the woman who once captured his heart, he'd confessed. Angelica Moretti.CHAPTER 3
Back in the summer, one sultry evening, Alex and I had met for dinner on the river after one of his board meetings. Alex is on a handful of boards in Savannah, so we see each other every month or so when he drives over from Atlanta. He was already making plans for Italy.
"Your first guide was just released," I said, "and you haven't even done edits for the second one, but you want to travel again in September? So soon?"
"I'm seventy-three, Jordan." He took a final bite of his crème brûlée and put down his spoon. "At this age, a man needs to make use of every minute. Not that there's anything wrong with me, so please don't jump to conclusions, as you're prone to do."
My first trip with Alex, I was skeptical about traveling with my uncle, but I was worried about his health. After Provence and then Ireland, it was more or less assumed that I was going along to whatever destination Alex chose for his travel guide, doing both of us a favor.
We examined our calendars. Alex already had flight information to give me, with options. By mid-September I should be able to get away from work. "Fine," he said, "but you need to let me know — shall we say by the end of next week?" He's such the professor: prepared, methodical, expecting the same from others, which is the part that's sometimes exasperating.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Treachery in Tuscany"
Copyright © 2017 Phyllis Gobbell.
Excerpted by permission of Encircle Publications, LLC.
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