Erica Barnett was so done with being done with Dwayne. She was even done with being done with being…
Yep! There was the crazy loop that her head had been stuck in for—she did her best not to sigh at herself—far too long. Enough was enough, as her best friend was nice enough not to say. Her merely close friends? She’d chased most of them away altogether.
She’d decided to spare those few who remained from suffering through her current lunacy. Which had led to this trip she’d always dreamed of. The Ligurian coast of Italy had fascinated her since forever. And now that she was here…
Well, if there was a cliff handy, she just might be tempted to jump off it, provided it wasn’t a very high one. She’d certainly just come too close to driving off one.
Erica sat on the grassy verge of the road, hugged her knees up against her chest, and tried not to look out at the idyllic Italian olive orchard perched on the steep hillside, backed by the vast Mediterranean and the cobalt blue sky. It all looked so perfect that it was easy to imagine the Roman gods still lived here.
She could smell the rich soil and the dry grass. And she could smell the Mediterranean Sea so close. It wasn’t like the Pacific, where she could smell the freshness of the air that had traveled ten thousand wild miles since brushing by the last person. Or the Atlantic that seemed to smell of the warm tropics it had flowed by on the way up the coast.
The Mediterranean smelled as if it knew things. It had been here before Greeks, Romans, or Egyptians. It predated the Iron and Bronze Ages. It had been here when primitive man had crossed over from Africa to paint images of their hands on the caves of Lascaux, France. She just hoped that the Mediterranean didn’t know so much about her because it would be mortally embarrassing. Pathetic, more like it.
She had come to the land of love—alone! And since she no longer believed in love, Erica decided that this trip could be the dumbest decision she’d made in a long line of them.
For her, it had never been the famous Amalfi stretch featured in every film since Hollywood directors had first discovered it in the 1950s. No, it was the small coastal towns to the north that she’d always imagined visiting. Ones where the bare bones of history lay upon the hillsides in thousand-year-old churches. Bridges and towers that had inspired Monet. Especially the little piazzas where she could sit and watch the world walk by in its elegant, Italian fashion while sipping an espresso with—
But, she’d come here alone.
Which didn’t really matter as that wasn’t the Italy she’d found anyway.
She crouched at the edge of an impossibly twisted switchback—as tight as the snake Ouroboros eating its own tail. From here, she stared over the scrub-brush edge. A crazy path had been carved down the steep, grassy hillside—carved by the tires of her rental car as she’d tried desperately not to die on her first day in Italy.
She’d missed the curve and had plunged a hundred feet down the slope through the orchard. The car had caromed off two aged olive trees, which had slowed her descent from starkly terrifying to alarmingly dramatic. Its final resting place, deep in the land of Really Annoying, lay against the granddaddy of the orchard smelling of hot metal and brutally sharp adrenal panic.
Good riddance. Stomped-on brakes and good fortune had lessened the impact, though she could still feel the harsh line of the seatbelt across her chest.
She’d left the car there and climbed back up to the roadside, but there was no one to flag for help on the remote cliffside road. Her cell phone was still down there in the car, even if she knew who to call. So she sat and glared at the car for lack of anything better to do.
Italian drivers were crazy, but she’d watched enough television travel shows to be ready for that. Tailgaters? No prob. She’d learned to drive in Oakland, the least rational of San Francisco Bay drivers. Manic passing on a curve? Nothing a Boston pro wouldn’t try—as she’d learned when life had led her there for the last decade.
It was the Italian roads themselves she wasn’t ready for. Narrow two-lanes the size of a US backcountry road were the major thoroughfares of the country. Only the massive autostrada toll roads had multiple lanes, which were still painfully narrow. As she’d come here to see the countryside not the highways, she’d taken to the secondary highways at the first opportunity.
Along with every massive truck in the entire country.
The driving was narrow, fast, and terrifying.
Had been. She definitely wasn’t getting back behind the wheel for as long as she was in Italy. The car could rot right where it was for all she cared. Parked in the olive orchard.
Except weren’t olive trees in groves rather than orchards?
And in Italy it would be some other mellifluous word that she’d never remember for three seconds past hearing it. It would end in an “a” or an “i” and sound charming coming from anyone other than her.
Let’s face it. She was probably in shock from having just survived her descent into the olive grochard.
Better than orchove. Maybe orchova. Short “a” or long? Either way: clunky!
Could you tell when you were in shock or not, or did someone else have to tell you? By being able to ask the question, did that mean she wasn’t in shock? Or that she was?
Or that she was losing her mind? Which wasn’t really in doubt at the moment—she definitely was.
The gray-green leaves, from where the orchard continued across the road up above her, filtered the hot Mediterranean sun of May into dappled laser beams among refreshing washes of shade. Below, leaves no bigger than her pinkie clustered and overlapped so tightly that she could barely see the white car down the cliff-like slope. Beneath the trees, grass thick with dandelions sought the sunny gaps. They smelled of spring newness. Filled with hope, so unlike herself.
Maybe she should sit. Except she already was.
She rested her forehead on her knees.
Ironically, it wasn’t the two-lane “highway” with its massive trucks and speeding cars that had defeated her. Instead it had been this isolated one-lane road that wouldn’t have been considered a decent driveway back home. According to her map, this narrow, switchbacked, and paved goat trail was the main road into her randomly chosen destination, the tiny cliffside town of Corniglia perched high above the Ligurian coast. It lay in the heart of Cinque Terre—the “five earths”—that made up her idea of heaven on earth.
Or it used to. At the moment? Not so much.
One blink of inattention for her first ever glimpse of the Mediterranean Sea. Looking back to the road in time to see a tour bus larger than the Starship Enterprise zipping up the hill as she’d descended. Overreaction, a tire out onto the shoulder—except there was no shoulder. And she’d plunged off the edge. The bus had continued obliviously on its way.
“Perfect metaphor for your life, Erica.” And it really was. The moments of inattention had always caused her the worst problems.
So she squatted on the verge and stared at the impossibly blue sky over the miraculously blue sea—and its far-too-knowing smugness—visible through a gap where the road passed through the grovocharda. Erica wondered how hard it would be to get back to the nearest airport and just go home.
Except that was gone too. Right now her belongings (those not down the slope) were filling a corner of her best friend Becky’s garage—a very small corner of it. Her job had imploded due to the worst bit of inattention in history. When her car was stolen, just to emphasize the total and complete failure of the worst week of her life, she’d given up the apartment and come to Italy. She had to be the lamest excuse for a twenty-eight-year-old ever born.
But she couldn’t go home yet even if she still had one. There was the rental car. She should at least let someone know it was there before it disappeared under blackberries or kudzu or whatever it was that plagued Italian ocharovino.
—ovino? A plague of grapevines? Maybe she needed wine…a lot of wine. Like a plague’s worth. How much wine did it take to kill a plague of inattention? It was like she’d caught the disease and couldn’t rid herself of it. What if it was an illness that compounded with age? As a little girl she’d always been told that she focused so well. She’d taken the praise to heart and honed it into a fine business career. Too bad that her personal life seemed to get all of the inattention parts. Maybe there was a fixed amount of inattention in a person and because she’d shut it out of the business part it was…
She was looping almost as badly as she’d done about Dwayne—the guy she’d sworn to never think of again.
Maybe she could find someone who could just change everything back as if it had never happened. The car. The flight to Italy. Leaving Boston. Sleeping with her boss—her married boss, so full of promises and lies.
How had she been so naive? So…desperate? No illusions, she’d let herself be handled and maneuvered by the preying bastard for almost two years. The saddest part of it all was that she still missed him. He’d been the most considerate lover of her life, and the lowest toad in the forest.
Erica double-checked that her little reflective traffic triangle was perched on the road’s edge behind her. “All Italian car,” the rental agent had told her as if it was the most important secret to driving in Italy, “has reflective triangle. Must use if is, ah, incidente.”
It was the only remaining bit of control in her life, placing that foot-high red-plastic triangle beside her on the edge of the road.
Danger! Here sits a disaster of a woman. Approach at your own risk.
Better yet: For your own safety, stay clear of this woman!
Since her car was off the road, its nose crumpled against an ancient tree, she figured it counted as an incidente as well as the worst start ever to a trip. Her pack was still down there somewhere with her cell phone. But, by god, her little red reflective triangle was on the road where it should be.
A smoothly dangerous sound had her turning in time to see a hot pink Ferrari convertible slide to a stop close behind her. A cheery brunette, whose dark brown hair spilled down over her shoulders in lazy waves, leaned out of the car. Their hair was similar in color, but that’s where all similarity ended. Her own was a straight fall to her collar as if it had just collapsed from its own anxiety and desperately needed a Xanax before it could even whimper.
“Are you all right, mia amica?”
“My friend. Let’s face it, luv, you don’t look happy.” The brunette offered Erica a small frown of sympathy that made her look even more lovely. Though the broad English accent was a jarring surprise, Erica wanted to hug her for it.
“I’ve had better days,” she pointed down-slope at her car. An elderly gentleman had come from somewhere in the trees and was inspecting the disaster.
The woman half rose out of her seat to peer over the edge of the drop-off.
Erica couldn’t believe that the first real conversation she’d been able to have with someone in Italy was with an Englishwoman. She’d naively thought much of Italy, at least the parts situated to deal with tourists, would have a little English. England English. She wasn’t so ethnocentric as to expect American English. And why was she clarifying her thoughts in her own head where no one else was listening? At least she hoped to god no one was or they’d all back quietly away.
“Rental,” Erica peeked down the slope to see if it had maybe been stolen by an evil Italian fairy—fairiovino? Drunken Italian fairy?—and would no longer bother her. But there it sat, shining mockingly in the dappled sunlight.
“And you are not hurt?”
Other than her pride, her hopes, the shredded remnants of her soul… Erica shook her head no.
“Oh. Everything is okay then.”
“How do you figure that?”
The brunette climbed out of the blazingly pink Ferrari. She was tall and generously built. She wore simple Italian chic: a silk blouse with the same warmth as her deep brown eyes, tight jeans, and stylish black suede boots with the little zipper on the side that Erica always wanted but could never seem to find. The light leather jacket looked to be for style rather than warmth on the fine spring day. It worked. She radiated a woman in her prime.
Much of Italy struck Erica that way, which made her want to stamp “Warning: Dowdy American” on her forehead—maybe with a little red reflective triangle logo.
A rotund brown-and-white Cavalier King Charles spaniel lumbered down from the low door sill of the Ferrari and came over to sniff at Erica’s hand. It appeared immune to the triangular warning sign blazing brightly on her countenance, so she pet it. The dog sighed happily, so she pet it some more. The first thing to make her feel good all day.
“I’m Bridget. He’s Snoop. And I am guessing that you need a place to stay.”
“Well, I’m thinking that I shouldn’t leave town until that is dealt with.”
“Oh pfft!” Bridget waved a hand at the car as if it was of no consequence. Maybe not in the land of buxom brunette Englishwomen wearing Italian elegance like a birthright, but it definitely was in dowdy American land.
“Shouldn’t I contact the police or something?”
“Conrad can take care of that for us. Can’t you, darling?”
Erica turned to see that the man who had been inspecting her car had now climbed the hill carrying her pack. He handed over both it and her cell phone very solemnly. He was an older gentleman who looked to be far above such menial tasks.
“Is that your tree?”
“They all are. You have parked your conveyance in my olive grove.” His smile was unexpectedly easy and made his blue-gray eyes brighten. His English was as high brow as Bridget’s was common. Again, England English. Again she wondered why she was always explaining things to herself. Especially since the one thing she couldn’t explain satisfactorily to herself was…herself.
Grove. It was a grove of olive trees. A new fact learned and filed. Perhaps a second ray of hope other than the surprisingly solid little dog leaning happily against her thigh as she continued to rub his ears.
She turned back to the grove’s owner. “I’m terribly sorry. Let me know if there is any damage. I’ll repay it…” somehow. She was an unanchored craft in the storm that was her life. She had savings—some scraps of it dating back to a near continuous stream of babysitting jobs that had defined her teen years—but it wasn’t as if she had some deep bankroll to survive whatever was happening to her. What did a tree cost anyway?
“These trees have been standing since long before the Medici first rose to power in the 1400s.”
It sounded as if they cost a lot. Maybe that’s what hope looked like—somehow to remain standing through the ages. Even when people were busy running cars into you.
“They have seen far worse than your piccola macchina. I shall call Marceto and see that it is returned where it must go. Would you perhaps desire a replacement?”
“Not on your life,” Erica blushed. Conrad did not seem like a man who should be addressed so casually. As a matter of fact, he didn’t seem to her the sort of man who should be addressed while sitting at his feet. She rose to face him, much to Snoop’s disappointment. “Sorry, but no thank you. I’m quite done with driving in Italy.”
“É finito!” He snapped his fingers as if he could work magic.
She peeked. Nope, the car was still parked very solidly against the olive tree below.
“Hal, my love?” Bridget was talking into a cell phone. “Do we have a room open? Sì? Perfetto! I will be home soon and bringing a guest.”
The woman stepped up and kissed Conrad on both cheeks.
Was Erica supposed to do the same? Unsure of herself, she held out a hand. Rather than shaking it, he bent over it and placed a kiss on the back of her hand like a gentleman of old.
“Conrad, Conte di Evenston, at your service.” Conte was a count or earl. His English fit that—pure upper crust. And she’d wager that his Italian would sound equally sophisticated to any ear more discerning than hers.
“Erica Barnett at yours.” She felt as if she should curtsy but knew it would look even clumsier than her twenty words of guidebook Italian sounded.
“Oh, Connie, you old hound,” Bridget teased him, but Erica felt touched.
And no way could she imagine ever addressing the sophisticated Count of Evenston as Connie.
“We must find another woman for you. Your wife is long gone now, rest her soul.”
“She will have to be a very special one,” his smile teased that Erica was the model for any future candidates. As if. Besides, he was at least twice her age, maybe closer to three times. He was handsome, polite, and at least wealthy enough to own an olive grove, but there were limits. Besides, she had an image in her head, had it since she was a little girl. The image had looked almost exactly like Dwayne who—she was so done with the older-but-wiser-man scenario. Fantasy. Thing.
“Come!” Bridget called as she popped open the trunk. “We have a most charming B&B. You must see it. You will never want to leave.”
With a little squooshing of the corners, Erica’s pack filled the Ferrari’s tiny trunk. She’d filled the big hiking pack, which she’d purchased used years before with the best of intentions, with the things she wanted to keep no matter what. If Becky’s garage was robbed or a temporal wormhole opened and sucked up her small stack of boxes, delivering them to a bewildered Queen of the Faeries, she wouldn’t care. Not really.
If one sucked her up, would she care? Erica looked at the beautiful woman buckling into the spaceship-like Ferrari, then rested a hand on the luxurious leather of the seat. Perhaps that’s exactly what was happening to her. Alien dog who only looked like a Cavalier King Charles spaniel but was actually the secret ringleader of the Rocky Horror Picture Show: Revisited. She, the hapless Susan Sarandon, sucked into the wormhole of…downright foolishness. Though she liked the idea of waking up and being Susan Sarandon. Susan wasn’t Italian-elegant, but there was no questioning that she had her act totally together.
Erica slid into the car’s passenger seat, which felt even better than first class looked after a twelve-hour flight in economy. It even smelled like she’d always imagined fine, Italian leather would smell—like a Gucci store only better. She pulled on her seatbelt, barely in time. Snoop climbed up to sit on her lap and rest his chin on the door’s edge over the lowered window.
The engine roared to life—like the quiet, throaty sound of a mountain lion moments before it jumped down and snapped your neck before dragging you away as dinner. Bridget flashed a wave to Conrad who waved a solemn hand in reply from the verge above his olive trees. The Ferrari leapt forward, slamming Erica back into the seat as they raced down the narrow, twisting road she’d barely been able to creep along. Snoop leaned his side into her chest and she wrapped an arm around him as his ears flapped out in the wind.
“Snoop for Snoopy?” Erica asked the dog, who turned to roll his eyes at her as if he’d heard that far too many times.
“Snoop,” Bridget slalomed through the descending twists of the road as if it was built into her DNA. “As in Snoop Doggy Dogg.”
“You rap much?” she asked him softly. He just put his head back out into the wind and let his ears flap to some secret canine rhythm.
She was in the hands of strangers and had no idea what came next.