A Tuscan Affair

Book excerpt: A Tuscan Affair

 

Anna froze and held her breath.

One glance at the two men Mackenzie led into her office unsettled her trademark cool composure. How many years had she fantasised that he’d walk through her door? But not after over thirty years! Her knees trembled, and then, like a deep-sea diver who’d been too long under water, she came up for air and took a deep, gasping breath.

Did he recognise her? That would not do. She ignored the flutter in her chest. This was not an occasion for fluttering. As one of Auckland’s leading lawyers, she had enough experience and self-control to deal with the appearance of a mistake from a long time ago. She schooled her face and closed the door behind them.

“Good morning. I’m Anna King. Please, take a seat.” Without a smile of recognition, she kept her voice cool and detached. Not by accident was she known as the Ice Queen, an image that took years to perfect. She motioned the two men to the group of chairs in front of a modern fireplace and picked a seat opposite them.

The older of the two said “Allow me to introduce myself. I’m Francesco Falcone and this is my son, Antonio. He came all the way from Tuscany to help me with my divorce.” She could relate to the pride and joy in the father’s voice. “Your colleague Mark Peterson handles my business affairs and said you would be the best lawyer to take on my divorce.” He smiled at Anna. “Your colleague is an ardent admirer of you.”

“That’s very kind of him.” So, Antonio was his name? Call me amore mio, he’d told her thirty-four years ago. That blissful night his soft whisperings were enough for her. She didn’t have a need for a name.

It was he, wasn’t it? Could she be mistaken? She, the lawyer who never made mistakes? Although no longer the sun-tanned young man with the body of a Roman God in red swim shorts, he looked the picture of sophistication in his expensive, tailored suit. His short, black hair showed a titillating dusting of grey at his temples.

There was no doubt. Back in nineteen-eighty-two he swept into her life like a force of nature, and, like the outgoing tide, vanished from her life the following day when she boarded the train to Rome. Now he stood in her office with no signs of recognition! She couldn’t very well ask whether he remembered their night at the beach around the bonfire. It wouldn’t be professional to bring up the past. She took a deep breath and looked up from the folder in her hand, calling herself to order.

“I’m having coffee; may I offer you each a cup as well?” The situation called for a coffee, an extra strong one. She rose and walked over to her desk. Both nodded and Antonio held up two fingers.

“Two espressos, black, each two sugars. Thank you.”

She switched on the intercom and relayed the order to Mackenzie, her assistant. Then it hit her.

Lucca.

It would be a disaster if Lucca came to work this morning. She shuddered and switched on the intercom again. “Please, call my son and tell him, he doesn’t have to come into the office this morning. I’ll meet him at court.”

On the way back to her chair, she caught her image in the antique mirror next to her bookshelves. Her reflection showed no signs of the young careless girl with a backpack and sandals, who danced around bonfires with her gypsy skirt and an infectious zest for life. Though the years have been kind to her, even with the lines around the eyes and her mouth. Not bad for fifty-six. She straightened her shoulders and joined the Falcones again.

Mackenzie entered the office. Balancing three cups on a tray, she passed the coffee to them and asked, “Is that all?”

“Thanks, Mackenzie. I’ll call you if we need anything else.”

They sipped their coffee until Antonio broke the silence. “Pardon me, have we met? I have a strong sense we know each other, but I can’t…” his voice trailed off and he squinted his eyes, scrutinising her.

Acting on impulse never served her well, so she dipped her head to the right and looked at him, as if trying to find a memory to fit him in.

“Not that I recall.”

He came much too close for comfort. Their situation was not like two acquaintances enjoying a reunion after many years. It was much more complex and required a well thought through strategy. She turned to Francesco.

“Would you mind telling me about the circumstances that led to the divorce proceedings? I’ll then be able to devise a strategy for us to go forward.”

Antonio Falcone glanced at her in disbelief. She would bet a month’s salary he usually had women laying at his feet instead of being dismissed with four simple words.

His father folded his hands on the table. “Angelica is a New Zealander. She came to our vineyard as part of an organised tour and bought a few boxes of our best wine. I delivered them to her hotel and the rest is history. We were happy, you know, even though she’s thirty-five years younger than I!” His voice softened, and he swallowed, recalling better times, no doubt.

Francesco’s struggle touched her. He told the story of their marriage like a rehearsed script he had gone over many times to find where things went astray between him and his much younger wife. He fought to control his emotions when his son barged in.

“Angelica is a gold digger. There is no doubt. She told my father she wanted a divorce with no prior indication she was unhappy in their marriage.” He huffed, and his voice turned bitter. “Why would she? She’s lived the life of a princess. I want you to set an investigator onto her and do a thorough background check. I bet there is more to the story. Why file for divorce now?”

His attitude showed all the signs of someone used to command and having people at his beck and call. He’d figured it all out and expected her to jump. She suppressed the urge to grin. He’d soon find out she’s walking to her own sweet drums and nobody else’s.

“You’re welcome to hire a private investigator. Ask him to send a copy of his report to my office.” She hoped she smiled without too much of a smirk.

Francesco cleared his throat. “You’ve to excuse my son. He’s used to commandeering people and doesn’t know when to stop. What he meant to say is, we would love if you would contract one of your trusted investigators to look into Angelica’s circumstances. Her request for a divorce came out of the blue. Nobody can make sense of it.”

“I’d be happy to do that for you. Please forward any correspondence you had so far with your wife or her lawyer regarding the divorce.” She then finished her coffee and collected the notes she made. “This is an excellent beginning and gives me lines of inquiry to pursue. Can you think of anything else we need to discuss?” She checked her calendar. “If not we can meet again Friday this week, at the same time. By then I’ll have a strategy ready for you.”

Anna closed the door behind the men and sank into her chair. Tears welled up. She wrapped her arms around herself. Thirty-four years. Fate had a cruel way of interfering with her life and reminding her of times she’d rather kept buried.

When the first tears pearled down her face, accompanied by little sobs, she bit her fist to stop the scream building inside her.

Mackenzie entered Anna’s office. “Lucca asked me to tell you…Anna! Oh dear!” She stood next to Anna’s chair and put her hand on Anna’s back. With a soft voice, Mackenzie said, “That…was the twin’s father, wasn’t it? They look so much like him.”

Anna pulled herself up, took a deep breath and gazed at her assistant. “Yes, but you can’t breathe a single word about it to anyone.”

A Case of Love

Excerpt of Golden Girls Series Book # 2

Chapter One

Twelve years ago today, Thea Cameron opened her café, Cinnamon. August 20 of 2004 marked the day when she stopped hoping to salvage her marriage. It became her Independence Day. No more hoping and no longer waiting for her husband’s approval! I don’t care anymore she told her friends then. And she didn’t—most of the time.

From then on Cinnamon became Thea’s symbol of liberation from her philandering husband. Nobody believed she would succeed. But she did. From the opening onwards the popularity of the café—and of her cooking—rose, and her confidence grew. The sign hanging on the baker’s bike outside read Cinnamon is twelve years old today! Celebrate with us, splurge out to prices of 2004, and have a dessert on the house.

Saturday morning crowds filled the cafés along Auckland’s Ponsonby Road. The Cinnamon was no exception. A row of tables on the pavement framed by a set of windows and an old-fashioned baker’s bike leaned against the wall with an enormous bunch of flowers peeking out of the basket. The first morning rush was over, but the Cinnamon still brimmed with clients coaxed out of their homes by golden sunbeams promising a splendid winter day.

It’s your delicious, homemade food and your passion for cooking, her friend Claudia used to say. Maybe. She was realistic. More likely it had to do with the atmosphere of serenity and peace she created when she turned the rundown, unpleasant New Zealand pub into a French Country style café, spreading abundant old-world charm with white lace curtains and tablecloths, antique crockery, and pink and red posies on each of the rustic tables. To celebrate her Independence Day today she decked out the whole place in pink and red.

She went inside and smiled. Aromatic whiffs of scrumptious bold coffee danced from the machine behind the counter and floated through the air. It was hard to miss the festive mood spread throughout the café.

“How may I help you, sir?” Thea stood in front of the glass cabinet. Shelves with delicious sandwiches and little cakes greeted customers. She looked up and straight into a black eye patch.

Pirates!

Everything she ever heard about pirates flashed through her mind. His dark brown hair showed generous grey streaks and framed a square face that was dominated by a nose broken at least once, going by the slight bend. A blue eye squinted under a bushy eyebrow.

She never saw a picture of a pirate with dimples, though, and he lacked the obligatory parrot and golden earring, too. In fact, nothing fitted the classic cliché. Not the tight-fitting jeans and the white t-shirt moulded to a muscular chest. Neither did the leather bomber jacket.

Should she tell him that his outfit is all wrong? She struggled not to smile at her mental image. He must have noticed her stare because he straightened to his full six foot something inches, tipped his head, lifted his eyebrows, and seemed to search for words.

“Please, take all the time you need to make your choice while I serve the other customers,” she said hoping he’d step aside.

“Thank you. I need to speak with the owner, Mrs Cameron.” His voice, deep, resonant, and commanding, fitted her first impression of him. A faint shiver ran down her spine. He might even have a Brig anchoring in the Harbour and sneak away with his booty under the veil of the night.

She smiled and smoothed her white apron. Her short, blond hair hugged her heart-shaped face dominated by a small button nose. Today, in their Independence Day outfit, she and her staff looked like cupcakes come to life with their red pencil skirts and pink blouses. She straightened her shoulders.

“I am Thea Cameron. Please, return around three o’clock when the rush is over. Monday morning after ten would suit, too. We are busy as you can see.” She kept her expression neutral and gestured at the twenty occupied tables and the long line of customers waiting for service. A waitress and a waiter rushed back and forth between tables, carrying trays stacked with breakfast dishes.

“You couldn’t have chosen a worse time.” She pointed at the long line of customers waiting behind him.

“My name is Mark Cheltham. I am a private investigator.” He handed her his business card and said with a friendly but determined voice, “I would like to speak with you about your husband.”

The unpleasant taste of bile rose in her throat. A PI? What had he to do with Graham? She sent him a quick once-over hoping for a clue, but his face gave nothing away. Typical pirate!

“Please, take a seat,” she pointed to a table marked reserved in the back of the café, next to her office desk. “I’ll be with you as soon as I can manage.”

She worked until no more customers waited in line and called into the kitchen “Barbara, could you take over the counter for a while?”

“Give me a sec to finish decorating this batch of cupcakes, Mum.”

Minutes later her daughter joined her. She took after her father. Where Thea was slim, petite, and blond, she had chestnut brown, long hair and a solid figure matching her five foot eight inches height. She smiled at her mother with sparkling green eyes.

“What’s the emergency?” She added a tray of pink cupcakes topped with a red and white hearts made of frosting to the displayed food. “For the Independence Day-lovebirds.” She winked and pushed a lock out of her face.

“There is a PI here who wants to talk to me about your father.”

Barbara’s eyes narrowed. “What on earth for? Can’t they let him rest in peace? Graham’s dead, for goodness’ sake. Doesn’t that put paid to any issues? At least the PI is not another phoney cop like the pushy guys that came in yesterday. I loved how you told them to take a hike.”

Grateful for her daughter’s support she exhaled, and some of the tension fell off her shoulders. “We’ll find out what he wants when I talk to him.” She started towards Mr Cheltham. Before she arrived, she spun around. “Table five outside is still waiting for their Bircher muesli.” She blushed, annoyed the PI’s unexpected presence rattled her so much, she forgot the customer’s order.

Thea walked over to the corner carrying two cups of coffee. Protected from view by a large Schefflera, her table doubled as her office away from home. He stood and pulled the chair back for her. A pirate with manners? Interesting. When she sat, he held her gaze with an expression of… was it sympathy?

“I am sorry to disrupt your busy morning. I’m afraid this is an urgent matter. Otherwise, I would return on Monday.”

She grabbed her hot cup and blew over its surface.

“Help yourself to the coffee.” She pointed to the small Sterling silver tray with a white sugar and creamer set in the middle of the table. “What is so pressing that you look me up on a Saturday morning when normal people still linger in bed reading the weekend paper? I buried my husband a week ago.”

“I was at the funeral. And I’ve read all the articles. I’m sorry for your loss.” He sipped his coffee.

Not again! She had enough of reporters on the hunt for another juicy story of her late husband’s affairs. “You must have a boring life. I didn’t take you for a Women’s Weekly fan.”

The smile he gave her spoke of pity and understanding. She needed neither and speared him with a glare. Why do people assume losing a husband is a bad thing? Not a day gone by in more than a decade she hadn’t wished Graham would disappear. Not dead, but no longer a part of her life. Even the tears she cried at his funeral were for her dad who died seven years ago. Him she missed. Her late husband? Not for a minute. That he ran the car off the road and killed himself with his latest fling in the passenger seat was poetic justice.

“I’m contracted by the Oceania Life Insurance to clear up a few questions. What can you tell me about Mr. Cameron’s last few weeks?”

She shot up an eyebrow. “You want information about my late husband’s affairs? You’re asking the wrong person. I stopped paying attention years ago. We shared the same house when he bothered to come home instead of sharing someone else’s bed. Maybe one of his secretaries can tell you more. I’m sure if you ring his office on Monday, they’ll help you further. It’s around the corner. A pleasant walk on a sunny morning.”

“Yes, I know where his office is.”

“If you’ll excuse me; I have work to do.” She stood but hesitated when his deep voice called her back.

“Your husband took out a three million dollar life insurance six weeks before the accident. I hoped you could tell me about it.”

She turned around. Three million dollars? That’s a crazy amount. She scanned the pirate’s face but he seemed serious. Frustration boiled up inside her.

“I have no idea. You must have the wrong man. My husband hated insurance companies. I’m sorry; I can’t help you.” She struggled to keep her feelings out of her voice. “One thing puzzles me, though. What was so urgent?”

“Someone claimed to be a police inspector and contacted the Oceania Life for information about the policy. They didn’t have a search warrant, so the OLI sent them away. When we checked their credentials, we found nobody in the police force with their names. OLI asked me to look into the situation for them. Whoever the people were, they could mean trouble for you and your daughter, Isabella, who is the beneficiary of the policy.”

She let out a sigh of relief. “That must have been the men who came in here yesterday. I sent them packing. Why didn’t you say in the beginning you looked for Isabella Cameron? That explains everything. You’ve got the wrong Cameron family. I don’t have a daughter by the name of Isabella. You need to go back to the drawing board and plug the holes in your research. Excuse me, I have work to do.”

He looked as if she told him Santa Claus cancelled Christmas for this year. She stopped a giggle pearling out of her mouth.

“Just as well you sent them away. They were fakes. I’ll take another look at my file and try to return later this afternoon.” He stood, searched for keys in his leather jacket and waved goodbye.

She watched him walking out and called after him, “No need to rush.”

“What did he want?” Barbara asked when Thea joined her at the counter.

“Mistaken identity. He looked for a child named Isabella Cameron.”

“Pity, he had a gorgeous ass.”

“Barbara!”

“Didn’t you see it when he walked out? His Calvin Klein jeans fitted like a second skin. And he has beautiful eyes—or at least one. I haven’t seen that kind of blue since Paul Newman died.” Her daughter had a dreamy expression that turned into a grin. “Lighten up, Mum. Just because Graham was a jerk, doesn’t mean all men are useless.”

“I am not about to test that theory. Better safe than sorry as they say. I’m not interested in men’s asses, whether they hide in designer pants or not.” She rolled her eyes at her daughter. “Can you take over now? I need to check on the Independence Day specials for lunch and want to finish my mock-up before the girls arrive.”

She went over to her office table and put the finishing touches to the cover of her new cookbook. Twenty minutes later the book was ready to go to the printer. She collated her notes and filed them into her foolscap folder when Mark Cheltham’s business card fell out. She picked it up and turned it around in her fingers. His visit disturbed her, even though she’d brushed him off. Doubts glared her in the face. Graham might have a daughter she knew nothing about. She tapped the edge of the card on the table. After years of humiliation she didn’t think he could still shock her. But a child? She hoped he’d rot in hell.

Even though she stayed in the marriage, she showed him she was not the fool he claimed her to be. He laughed at her for opening the café. But with the help of her friend Anna’s legal expertise, she took out the loan to buy and refurbish the old pub. Every one of her friends helped: Christine, Claudia, and Anna. Together they wrestled the run down tavern into a place fit for public use.

How many nights did she spend on her knees, scrubbing her anger into the wooden floor planks until they shone in their original glory? The battle became personal, and the Cinnamon became her statue of liberty. On Tuesday she will pay off the outstanding credit—years ahead of time.

A few stray rays of sunlight filtered through the lace curtains throwing geometric patterns of light onto the wall behind her table. Barbara appeared and placed a hot drink in front of her. “What’s up?”

“Just lost in thought. Thanks for the coffee. I’m finished. Tell me what you think.”

“I like it.” Her daughter studied the cover. “It’s hard to believe how you have transformed the old place and turned out these amazing cookbooks.”

“I have to thank you for that. You are the best thing that came out of that cursed marriage. I love you, my darling. Seeing you with Christopher and the kids makes me hopeful that not all is bad.” She gave Barbara a kiss on her cheek. “When you became my partner five years ago, I had time to focus on other things than running the café. Together we are a brilliant team.”

She felt something hard in her apron pocket and found Mark Cheltham’s business card. She took it, bounced it a few times against her pursed lips and threw it into the rubbish bin.

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