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About the Author
Inspired by novelist Jilly Cooper, Karen Aldous continues to adore reading stories. Karen attributes her passion for writing to three P’s - People, Places and Property. Her careers allowed her to indulge in them all. All useful material for her debut novel One Step Ahead. Karen lives with her husband and golden Labrador in the beautiful Kent countryside where their three children grew up. She enjoys activities which can be shared with family and friends: walking, cycling and skiing.
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Under a Tuscan Sky
By Karen Aldous
HarperCollins PublishersCopyright © 2017 Karen Aldous
All rights reserved.
It was so much more than an image. Olivia Montague's finger stroked the ageing photograph of the elderly couple gazing, not at the camera, but intensely at one another even after all those years. And even in sepia tones, glints of love and passion sparkled in their eyes. Olivia's skin prickled looking at them standing huddled among the vines, their chemistry radiating from the now dulled, once glossy paper almost as if it were present in her Bermondsey sitting room.
More significantly for Olivia, her Italian grandparents represented family – solid, the roots of her being, an impenetrable foundation. Nonna Elena and Nonno Angelo had such adoration for each other, just like her mother and father in those brief years before her father's death.
She picked up the other photograph her mum had given her just before Nonna's funeral. The one in colour, two sunburned hippies blazoning sun-bleached hair against a lapis blue sky and pink sand, eyes lost in one another. So much longing and love dazzling between them. Sadness gripped Olivia's throat. Was it real or was she imagining it? Was it an Italian gene that had by-passed her? Why couldn't she have that love? She and Will Parks had never looked at one another like that.
Lowering the image, she glanced up, her eyes seemingly fixed on wooden shutters encasing the bay window, but they stared vacantly, imagining the inscription on her headstone.
'Sadly, she was never loved, nor could ever love.'
In her mind a sinkhole appeared, a huge void spreading fifty feet or more on a wild meadow splashed with blue crocuses and daisies. Sliding into it was Nonna, Nonno, her mum and dad, her gran, grandad, Will. Then her. She lurched violently forward then quickly grabbed a long twine, then clutching tufts of long grass and a thread of tangleweed, she scrambled on her knees to save herself.
On her knees on the bank, she twisted herself reaching out in the hope one of them would be close enough to pull her to safety. Instead she watched each slowly sink into the blackness, tumbling in different directions, not one of them reaching for her. It was a nightmare imitating life, reinforcing the abandonment she constantly felt: that hollow space she'd locked inside her that no one could or would want to fill. Even Will.
The image played repeatedly during the night and the following morning whilst she was on her run. As she was drinking cold water and black coffee in Starbucks afterwards, her phone pinged. A message from Will saying he would be back from football about seven. A sigh escaped her as she slid the screen back and stuffed the phone back in her pocket. At the tables surrounding her, young couples and family groups seemed to be looking on with pity.
'Of course I have a life,' she screeched under her breath, pulling out her phone again and willing it to ring and hitting Chiara's number when it didn't. It went straight to voicemail.
The problem was, the only people she could talk to about the photos just weren't available. Like most Saturdays, there was no Will to hang out with until later, much later, and when he was still likely to be in his football coma. Her friend Chiara would be taxiing Sophia to some activity or other.
Olivia felt she would really value another opinion right now. But no other friends knew her as well as Chiara. It was times like these when she really wished she had someone else close, particularly family, but unless she counted a runaway hippy mother somewhere in northern Italy, she was on her own.
Their last tête-à-tête ended in tears after she'd asked for help with – and invited her mother to - her Granny Nora's funeral. Not only did the inebriated Roz tell her to pull herself together, but she also refused to come on the grounds that she'd barely known her, and couldn't even bring herself to send a spray of flowers. Sometimes she just wished her mum could be a proper mum and at least offer a friendly ear when she needed one. She swore the woman didn't have a heart. Olivia's mood was sinking.
She folded her arms, hugging them in to support herself. Maybe staying at Nonna's villa in Tuscany without Will would give her some space, a proper chance to deal with her grief, and maybe, clearing out the villa would give her the opportunity to discover more about her nonna and her mum. It was their home, and the place where her mother grew up. An insight into a woman who could abandon a child and then thrust responsibility for both grandmothers' funerals and property on that child could prove interesting.
Trying to muster up enthusiasm for the dreaded task of sorting through Nonna's things, Olivia opened her phone and tapped on to the newly created schedule for 'Trip to Italy', on her Diary app. There was so much to fit into eleven days and if Will was adamant he couldn't make it, she had double the workload.
Already listed was her meeting with Signor Ricci, the real-estate agent, at four o'clock on the Friday afternoon she arrived at the villa. Being the pragmatist she was, she added a scheduled stop at two-thirty at the co-op supermarket in the village on the way - just to gather supplies; although she was sure Gabriella would leave a few essentials.
She then blanked the first two days specifically for cleaning the three-storey villa, in preparation for a viewing booked in already on the Monday, possibly two. It would be hard work and it had crossed her mind to employ cleaners and house clearers even, but she figured it was better to assess what was important first.
Her thoughts were interrupted when a woman approached asking her if the chair beside her was taken.
'No, take it,' she said.
The woman lifted it across to the table close by and Olivia observed as the woman was joined by a younger woman carrying coffee. Probably mother and daughter, she thought with a sigh of envy. How nice to just call your mum and meet up for a coffee or shopping. Even have an adult conversation with her. Why was her mother so different, so distant and cold? Maybe when she cleared the villa she would uncover something about her. She figured there must be some remnants of her mum's childhood within its walls.
Thinking she was sounding like a detective, hunting clues as to why her mother was so estranged, she chuckled to herself. Although she saw her two or three times a year, she was still curious about her and her elusiveness. It was possible there were personal journals she kept as a child, or diaries. Somewhere she wrote down her thoughts - schoolbooks, even.
In her teenage years, she had discovered quite a collection of her father's schoolwork when she had helped her gran clear out the loft. In fact, growing up in his home in Bermondsey had given her some comfort at least. Her grandma Nora had everything neatly boxed and took great pleasure in talking about her son. Unlike Nonna Elena in Italy who seemed to close down when she asked questions and treated Olivia's mum with contempt.
As a little girl, Olivia remembered crying on occasions when she visited her nonna's Tuscan villa, because her mum could only stay a day or two. Each time she said she had to get back to work. It made sense as an adult, but as a child, Olivia resented it and now she was more curious as to why her mother was like she was and why they never spent much time together. She could only hope there would be something to give her more of an insight into the woman; maybe she could even find out where her mother lived now.
As they had always stayed at Nonna's to see one another, Olivia was now eager to discover where her mother currently called home. Was she living in some hippy commune or moving from one to another? It was never discussed, although she was sure she had enquired on a few occasions but was told only that she lived north of Tuscany. Regardless, once the villa and farm were sold, she would still want to visit her mother and needed to know her address. Yes, this could be her raison d'être.
She opened another heading on her app, the one with her 'To do' and 'Lists'. She added a new heading: 'Mum's history'. There were several she used constantly, the 'House', the 'Work', the 'Italy' the 'favs', the 'wish' list, all the daily functional stuff, then there was the 'Wilting Will' list she'd begun in the early hours this morning when she had woken up, the images from the photos stamped on her mind. The list of cons on this far outweighed the pros. The top one being no great love or passion.
Why was she still with him? she had asked herself. He didn't exactly cut the mustard. The only two things on her list in his favour were his pretty face and barbecuing skills. Like those before him, any spark that she may have once imagined had undoubtedly failed to ignite. Love just didn't seem to feature in her genetic make-up. And to add insult to injury, Will - knowing how necessary it was for her to go to Italy next week - was as ever too wrapped up in his all-consuming football and job to accompany and support her.
Should she blame herself for buying him the season ticket? Probably. The mortgage on his London flat was extortionate; but then, the choice was his, and he could at least be there when she needed him. He clearly didn't give a damn and, if she was totally honest with herself, neither did she.
Life could be far more exciting as a forty-year-old singleton. She needed to widen her circle of friends perhaps. At least she would get out of the habit of sitting around weekends waiting for Will to turn up in his football-induced drunken stupor, only to watch him splayed across the sofa, snoring it off.
'Best to speak to Chiara and get her opinion, then go with it,' she muttered to herself. 'Bloody well set myself free.' In a determined frame of mind, she ordered another coffee and, seeing some people leave, curled her feet up on the comfy two-seater sofa, which was still warm. At least if she stayed here she would be among company rather than home alone.
She unlocked her phone and began a 'New Olivia' list. The possibilities were endless, she thought, entering ideas of places she wanted to travel and the goal of learning to salsa. She was sure she was doing the right thing. If only Chiara would ring back. It was always comforting when her friend approved; besides, she knew that if she didn't act soon, she would talk herself out of it. She needed Will out of her life.
At seven-thirty, Chiara still hadn't rung back, and after looking at the photos again and adding to her 'Wilting Will' list, Olivia was convinced the time to ring him was now, before doubts crept back again. Taking a deep breath, she punched her finger on Will's avatar, straightening her back, ready to jump up when he answered. There would be no more wasted weekends or listening to him and his pathetic mates drivel over every second of a game she had no interest in.
How grateful she was to her mother for once, as it was Roz who had insisted she squeeze those few photos into her cabin-sized baggage. It felt like the wake-up call she needed. She just hoped she wouldn't live to regret it. Her hand hovered over the call-end button.CHAPTER 2
After she closed the front door with a triumphantly smug sigh, Olivia's vision immediately rested on the back of a large autumn-burned maple leaf that had settled on the apex of the stone-capped post. It was soaking in morning sunlight, its veins stretching prominently into the rich-orange glow of the flesh and burnishing in glory. Her lips curled up at the sight as it reflected her own turn of events and the inner radiance that occupied her. Will was now out of her life.
She pulled the black iron gate to, buttoned the top of her coat to block out the fresh October breeze from her chest, and marched rhythmically through the Bermondsey streets and towards the square that housed her business: Square One Osteopathic Clinic. After unlocking the Georgian front door, she collected the post and headed directly through reception towards the kitchen, enwrapped by the warm air from the newly fitted - and so much more efficient heating system.
As she carried her coffee back through the hall she hit the switch on the retro-style radio. At once the music streamed directly to her feet.
'Yes!' She placed her coffee and banded post on the reception counter and allowed the music to take her. Her hips swinging as Michael Jackson was singing Man in the Mirror.
She heard the front door bounce from its latch and a familiar figure strode towards her.
'Wow, look at you dancing first thing in the morning,' Chiara chimed, as she watched Olivia twirl around the reception desk, clicking her fingers. 'Cold?'
Olivia raised her arms, still clicking her fingers to the beat and waving them in the air whilst wriggling her hips. 'No, just happy. Happy, happy, happy.'
'Well I'll have some of that. Come on, what is it?'
'Happy that I made the biggest decision ever,' she said, stretching a smile and amused at Chiara's mouth suspended in torment. She scooped up the front of her walnut-coloured hair and declared, 'I've dumped Will.'
'No! Oh, God, I didn't ring you back.'
Olivia bent her knees as she wriggled in front of Chiara. 'It's fine. I finally admitted to myself Will is a waste of space, that I'm not love material, I'm never going to fall in love, nor do I think I'm capable, so I told him and now I'm single.'
Her friend since their first day at school, Chiara stared at her horrified, her large brown eyes wide. 'Will. You've dumped Will? Oh my God, Liv. I thought you two were sound, and wasn't there talk of marriage, babies?'
Olivia gave a shudder. 'Yes, I know but realistically, it would never have worked. Chiara, I don't love him. We'll never have what you and Liam have.' She clapped her hands as she watched her friend's eyes widen further.
'But I don't believe it; you've never done anything so impulsive. I can't believe you finished with Will. Are you sure?'
Olivia clenched her teeth, gazing at her friend. 'Oh, Chiara, I've gone mad haven't I?'
'No, not at all. I'm surprised, just totally surprised.'
'Oh, I don't know now. I've had a somewhat strange but liberating weekend, that's all. And I didn't want to disturb you and Liam. If you really want to know, it started on Friday night when I got out my passport and stuff to organize my next trip. I was going to phone Will for the hundredth time to try and get an answer about our flight to Italy, but I found some photos my mum gave me of Nonna and Nonno, and her and dad. God, it now seems so ... what's the word, fatalistic, something along those lines. I'm not sure what affected me exactly but their photo captivated me.'
Olivia bit her lip, looking serious. 'Their eyes always seemed to lock together rather than at the person taking the picture or the camera, which is sweet and so suggestive of their own little world entwined in love. It made me think of the story you told me when you and Liam went to stay at Nonna's farm in May, you know, when she told you they used to hide under the vines to make out. Seriously, it's haunting.'
'Oh, you sound as though you have given this lots of thought.'
'You could say that. I did lots of mulling over at the weekend. Well, I've naturally been doing lots since Nonna's death, but seeing those photos made me take a good look at myself, a bit of soul-searching if you like, and ...' Clicking her fingers and lifting her chin, Olivia burst into a loud song, 'I'm "gonna make dat change."'
She waited for Chiara's response, but her friend didn't speak. 'Do you think I've lost it? I've been dreaming, no I've been deluding myself I was in love with Will. But it's not love. There was never any magic. And, if I'm honest, I don't think he really loved me.'
Chiara stared, hands on hips. 'Whoa! Sounds deep and ... so sudden. Liv, you haven't lost it. But, what have you done? Poor Will, I expect he's hurt? And, well .'
Olivia scrunched her face and shook her head as she impulsively continued to dance. Chiara was probably as confused as Will had been. This change of heart had come out of the blue. She had never acted so impulsively before and she knew why Chiara found it difficult to comprehend.
'His pride maybe hurt, but he didn't seem too bothered when I told him. Although he may have been half asleep when I rang. I think he was tanked up with alcohol. He'll get over it. I'm being true to myself for once in my life, and what's more I'm going to Italy on my own.'
'Look, I'm with your decision - I'm just not sure where my friend, the overly cautious Olivia is and, well, the other factor. I don't know, perhaps grief has the answer. You must be upset, stressed.'
Raising her nose in the air, Olivia tittered. 'Maybe, but it's actually quite refreshing as well as liberating. But really, do I need need a man in tow?' Olivia picked up her coffee and boogied into her office, proud of her commitment to herself.
Excerpted from Under a Tuscan Sky by Karen Aldous. Copyright © 2017 Karen Aldous. Excerpted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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