Amalfi Coast, 1922
Isobel lifted her face to the glorious warmth of the sun. Impossibly bright after the damp chill of England, it pricked at her closed eyelids. She opened her eyes to colours brighter and more exotic than any she’d ever seen. Pastel-washed houses clung to precipitous mountain slopes, green as emeralds, that dropped into the azure Tyrrhenian Sea. A world away from the grey, sullen seas of her childhood holidays, this sleepy fishing village seemed as unreal as an Impressionist painting, a landscape of emotion rather than form.
Positano slept in the midday heat, and she was blissfully alone with nothing to disturb her solitude but the shriek of a lone kestrel soaring high above. She sat at the top of a broad flight of stone stairs overlooking the beach where fishing boats, their hulls faded by the sun, lay upended on the dark sand. She shut her eyes again, revelling in the sun’s kiss, and breathed in the heavy, briny air and the stillness.
Thank heavens Cousin Frances’s errand was taking so long. Isobel needed a respite from her overwhelming relatives. A week she’d been in Italy, staying with the American cousins she barely knew and so far nothing had been as she’d expected. If Mother had known the sort of company they kept or the freedom the girls were allowed, Isobel doubted she’d have allowed her precious eldest daughter to make the trip.
Even if Christopher Barrett was a houseguest.
Isobel smiled. She had no intention of enlightening her mother. New as all these strange people and their even stranger mannerisms were to her, she was at least free here, for a few blissful weeks, from the weight of Mother’s expectations. Italy was a vast improvement on the damp wilds of Shropshire. Too soon the summer would be over and her Season debut launched. She sighed.
Distant voices, carrying across the water, disturbed her reverie. A fishing boat tacked into the bay, growing from a speck against the bright silver of the waves to a distinct shape. As her eyes grew accustomed to the glare of sun on sea, she became aware that she was not alone in watching them.
On the rough wooden pier stood a man as still and as silent as she. Isobel eyed him curiously. Darkhaired and dark-skinned, he seemed as exotic as an Arab from a paperback novel. Like many of the Italian peasants she’d seen, he wore shabby trousers and a dark blue pullover. Yet as he turned toward her, looking up to catch her stare, she knew there was something different about him that set him apart.
Perhaps it was the lazy grin that dimpled his cheek, or the easy grace with which he raised a hand in salute to her. He moved with a lightness noticeably absent in the other natives of Campania.
Before she arrived in Naples, she’d had no idea how sheltered her life was, how little she knew of people, of their poverty and desperation. In one week she’d seen enough of both to fill her heart with tears.
She turned quickly away from the man, looking up instead at the village that sheltered in the cleft of mountain, finding solace in the beauty and tranquillity of the landscape. Whatever hardships the locals faced, at least they lived in paradise.
The majolica-tiled dome of the church glinted in the angling sunlight, rising above the jumbled buildings that seemed to be squeezed into every available space, rising in tiers up the steep slopes. Beauty in chaos. A silver lining. And like the smiling stranger, all she had to do was find the silver lining to the clouds hanging over her.
By the time she looked back, the boat had pulled alongside the narrow jetty and prepared to dock. The stranger on the pier caught the rope cast to him by the fishermen on board and fastened it with the quick skill of years of practice.
Not wanting to be caught watching again, Isobel raised her face to the sun and closed her eyes. Behind her eyelids, she pictured Positano as a painting, its vivid colours captured on canvas, golden sunlight infusing the scene with the same sensual heat she basked in now.
Moments later, a shadow fell across her. Frances, at last.
Except it wasn’t. He stood over her.