THE ECHOES OF LOVE
Published by London Wall Publishing
30 June 2016
Set in the romantic and mysterious Italian city of Venice and the beautiful landscape of Tuscany, The Echoes of Love is a poignant story of lost love and betrayal, unleashed passion and learning to love again, whatever the price.
Venetia Aston-Montague has escaped to Italy’s most captivating city to work in her godmother’s architecture firm, putting a lost love behind her. Paolo Barone, a charismatic entrepreneur whose life has been turned upside down by a tragic past, is endeavouring to build a new one for himself. Venice on a misty carnival night brings these two people together. Love blossoms in the beautiful hills of Tuscany and the wild Sardinian maquis; but before they can envisage a future together they must not only confront their past, but also dark forces in the shadows determined to come between them. Will love triumph over their overwhelming demons? Or will Paolo’s carefully guarded, devastating secret tear them apart forever?
Excerpt of “The Echoes of Love”
By Hannah Fielding
As it turned out, in the weeks that followed they had bumped into each other often at Fritelli, a coffee shop on San Marco square where Venetia stopped for a cappuccino and biscotti every morning on her way to work, and where she met friends at weekends for afternoon tea. Most days, Paolo arrived as she was leaving. Whenever their eyes crossed he had smiled politely, but had never stopped to talk.
And then tonight, on Martedi Grasso, at the grand ball that il Conte Umberto Palermi de Orellana was giving to celebrate the inauguration of his new home near San Marco square, and the first Carnival of Venice of the twenty-first century, Paolo had been there.
His tight Arlecchino outfit, with bright multi-coloured patches in diamond shapes and a short frilled collar, clung to his muscular body like a second skin, and he wore a white felt beret adorned with a rabbit tail. Almost stopping in her tracks as she had entered the vast ballroom, Venetia had recognised him behind the devilish features of his half-face leather black mask, not only because his athletic body towered over most of the guests, but also because of the easy, almost imperious way he moved through the crowd; and then of course, there was the deep cleft in the middle of his chin that would always give him away.
All evening, Venetia had been aware of the penetrating azure-blue eyes following her around the room, and when occasionally she met their enigmatic gaze she found it difficult to tear away from their scrutiny. Neither of them approached the other; they had merely circled around their mutual awareness, which vibrated heavily in the air no matter how dense the crowd became. And now, as she stood before the mirror, he had been there once more in the dim shadows, the reflection of his powerful silhouette caught in the glass by the leaping light of the fire, devilment sparking from behind the black mask.
A couple of ladies in full carnival dress, their heads clouded in veils of black lace, walked out of the ballroom, interrupting Venetia’s reverie. She looked up at the clock. Firelight fell warm on the gold dial. Time had stopped for her. She was amazed at how long she had been standing there reminiscing about her lost life, feeling the echoes of a lost love. She should be returning to the party.
Venetia took off her Columbine mask. She still sensed she was half in the past and paused for a moment with her hand on the door handle, listening to the voices and the people laughing, before turning it and going in.
The long room, flooded with a golden glow from enormous Murano chandeliers, was filled with people mostly hidden behind carnival masks, their disguises rich and colourful, glittering with the splendour of diamonds, rubies, sapphires and emeralds. Transformed by their costumes into stately drifting mountains of Burano lace, with bright trailing peacock skirts of old brocade, the ladies flicked fans before their faceless faces, their heads adorned with neat, small cockaded tricorne. The men too wore masks, but with noses protruding like beaks ̶ the famous ‘bauta’: the Venetian disguise par excellence. For many, the costumes consisted of voluminous black cloaks wrapped high about their neck, and with the white stockings on their legs they looked much like crows and magpies. Their heads were covered in large black tricorne hats with sweeping lines, trimmed upon the edges with flickering white feathers. There were also costumes inspired by historic court attire, and other fantasy-style masquerade dress. The surreal majesty of the scene reminded Venetia of the dusky painting ‘Il Ridotto’ by Venetian artist Pietro Longhi that she had always found so spooky, with its macabre eighteenth-century figures disguised in masks and shrouded in shadows.
The heavy door shut softly behind her and she stood there unnoticed, looking at the guests in their fabulous attires, some masked and others not, all talking and laughing. She felt a little underdressed in her simple, frilled, low-bodice sobretta outfit, with its patchwork of red, green and blue diamonds and large white apron and mob cap trimmed with lace. It represented a woman of the people, Colombina, the perky maid in the Commedia dell’ Arte, the counterpart of Arlechino, and sometimes his wife. The costume had been given to her by her godmother for a New Year’s Eve masked ball in London, and it had won first prize; in fact it had been the fancy dress party at which she had met Judd; but that was years ago … so much had happened since … she must not think of all that now. She shook off her darkening mood and moved into the sea of revellers.
Unconsciously searching for him among this pandemonium of masks, Venetia did not see Paolo immediately. When she spotted him, she saw that he had bared his face and was standing at the far end of the room, a glass of champagne in one hand while the other rested on a Corinthian column. He gave an impression of fitness and steadiness, and the other men in the room appeared to Venetia washed out in contrast. Though his body was lithe, there was something almost frightening in his apparent strength and vigour, almost inhuman. She had to admit that Paolo, with his dark head and his deeply tanned face lit by those arresting cobalt eyes, was the most striking-looking man she had ever seen: like a fallen angel.
He was surrounded by other figures of the Commedia dell’ Arte. There was il Dottore wearing a long black tunic with a jacket that reached all the way to the ankles, black shoes, a skullcap, and an unusual black mask that only covered the nose and the forehead; il Capitano in his suit with bright multicoloured stripes and gilt buttons, a feathered cap and a frightful sword; and Pulcinella in a loose linen blouse belted with a rope over thin tights and a huge warped belly, a hat and a half face-mask with a hooked nose giving him a bird-like look.
Paolo was watching Venetia intently, only half listening to the vivacious blond cortigiana in a splendid golden outfit with plunging neckline and a tall conical hat. His head stood out distinctly against the ochre wall, his gold-bronze face beaming now as his host approached. They spoke for a few minutes before threading their way through the crowd towards Venetia.
Il Conte Umberto Palermi di Orellana was a tall, aristocratic, handsome man in his early thirties who was known to be a bon viveur and a philanderer. Tonight he was Lelio, the elegant innamorati, the lover of the Commedia dell’Arte, in a sumptuous court dress of the eighteenth century. As was customary for that character, he did not wear a mask. He had met Giovanna Lombardi, Venetia’s godmother, at a drinks party. A few weeks later, he had approached Giovanna’s firm, Bianchi e Lombardi: Architetti, to take on the refurbishment of Palazzo Palermi, which he had just inherited from his father and which was in need of a total face-lift.
The renovation and redecoration of old historic buildings was Venetia’s speciality and the Palazzo Palermi had become her first big project while working in her godmother’s firm. After graduating from Cambridge, she had done a master’s degree in History of Art at the Courtauld Institute of Art in London, and then had spent some time at Instituto per l'Arte e il Restauro ‘Palazzo Spinelli’ in Florence. Even though she showed great promise in straightforward architecture, Venetia did not feel it was her calling. And so Giovanna had put her in charge of Marmi Storici e Pietra, the department for the restoration of historic buildings where Venetia was able to develop her talent for restoring mosaics and murals. She had immediately excelled and was beginning to make a name for herself in Venice.
Still, as her first major venture, the job had taken almost a year to realise, during which time Umberto had tried every trick in his book to seduce the young woman. It had all been to no avail: his Adonis good looks and his charm left her cold. By the end of the assignment, not only had Venetia managed to carry out the works to completion without falling out with the notorious womaniser, but she had also gained the Count’s admiration and respect. So much so, that he had asked her to marry him. She had been careful to turn him down gently. Umberto had taken the rebuff graciously but told her that he would not give up hope and she could be sure he would be asking her again.
‘Venetia, cara, you look amazing,’ Umberto Palermi oozed, taking her hand and bringing it up to his lips, his eyes brilliant with lust. ‘I have neglected you all evening. You must forgive me.’ Not waiting for her reply, he added: ‘Have you met my best friend, il Signore Paolo Barone?’ and, turning to Arlecchino, he introduced her. ‘La Signorina Aston-Montagu, who waved her magic wand over this place and from a heap of ruins turned it into a magnifico palazzo.’
A twinkle lit Paolo’s pupils. ‘No, I don’t think I have had the pleasure of meeting the signorina,’ he declared, a deep and sexy cadence in his voice.
Venetia felt herself blushing. It was really annoying not to be able to control one’s colour. Looking up at Paolo, she was sure he must be aware of the effect he had on her. With luck he would conclude that it was actually Umberto’s proximity that was affecting her in this way. His powerfully masculine glance swept over her and she felt an involuntary heat unfurl deep down. Remembering her manners, she put out her hand.
‘How do you do?’
Suddenly, there was a violent blast of noise before their hands could make contact.
‘Ah, the fireworks have begun,’ exclaimed the Count, taking Venetia’s arm. ‘Come, let’s go outside.’
The heavy brocade curtains were drawn back by young pages in eighteenth-century court dress and the elegant floor-to-ceiling windows were pushed open, inviting guests onto the wide veranda. Venetia was grateful for the interruption that was taking her away from Paolo’s silent scrutiny. No man since those far off days had stirred her as he did, almost from the moment they had met on that strange, dramatic evening. And while Umberto escorted her onto the terrace, although she could not see him, Venetia had no doubt that Paolo’s eyes were still dwelling on her with that curious expression she was beginning to know, and which puzzled her so.
Umberto’s palazzo, only a few streets away from San Marco, had an enviable view over the waterway, where the neck of the Grand Canal joined the broader stretch of water in front of the city’s famous square. The wide canal had filled with boats and barges gliding along the dark water like fireflies: each vessel was trimmed with arches of leaves, plume-like clusters of ferns, and festoons of laurels, lit up with hanging paper lanterns and slowly drifting through a swaying mass of gondolas.
From the far end of the Grand Canal, among the docks and shipping, the muffled darkness burst suddenly into a festival of dazzling light, as the mysterious night sky became starred with jewels of fire.
The fireworks soared into the air; they broke into raying diamonds of brightness and then floated towards earth, expiring in their downward flight. Other little points of light appeared, followed by tongues of flame rushing up from different places and flowing out large luminous bubbles of silvery-blue and green and sapphire. One after another, the rushing rockets sprang hissing upwards and, towering far above the water, burst with a soft shock into a golden sheaf of fire. They hung uncertain for one moment in the sky, and then came showering down.
Clouds of pearly smoke billowed out from under the trees on the Piazza, turning from ruby to rose, from yellow to opalescent green – curling mists that enriched everything around and transformed the crowds and buildings into a fabulous, surreal painting soaked in gold.
And then, from out of the obscurity, a crystal waterfall curved up like a wave and streamed down into the darkness, white, noiseless and shimmering; on and on the miraculous river of silver flowed over and melted away, and a great uproar surged from the masses watching from the boats and on the shore.
Venetia was aware of Umberto being called away at this point and she was relieved that his rather overt attentions next to her were now gone, but Paolo had remained. She could feel his eyes on her, close somewhere, and she shivered slightly though she was transfixed on the scene of great splendour and movement above her. She watched, fascinated, as huge plumes of golden spray tossed high in the sky, looking like dissolving feathers of fire, and wheels of green spun madly to extinction, hurling burning sparks from them and blooming fire flowers.
There was a pause, before the spectacular finale. Soft stars of colour shot up, soaring into the night. One after another, bouquets of primrose, coral and lilac rose slowly into the sky, blossomed exotically there, flamed, floated, and then vaguely fell, as if faint with an excess of beauty, into the inky water below, which received them and folded them to itself with a kiss.
It was the first time Venetia had witnessed firework displays on such a magnificent scale from so close, and a strange excitement coursed through her like the blazing colours that had exploded across the dark sky above. ‘A dream being born in the night air,’ she murmured to herself, as the glimmering wonder ended.
‘Just that one moment of insane beauty before they consume themselves and die,’ answered Paolo’s voice out of the darkness.
Venetia was now even more aware of his disconcerting presence behind her, as Paolo’s low voice seemed to caress her provocatively, and she was not sure whether she wanted to welcome his company or flee it.
After a brief moment, she heard him whisper again. ‘Life ought to hold that once for everyone.’
‘And sometimes it does,’ she breathed, without turning round. The evening had taken on a vivid and surreal magic that she did not want to let go of. She did not need to speak to him to know that he was feeling it too, and this connection between them that needed no words, intrigued and scared her in equal measure.
The guests were crowding back into the ballroom. Paolo silently took Venetia’s arm and guided her away from the crush towards the balustrade that overlooked the canal. Leaning his back against the stone, he took out of his pocket a packet of cigarettes and offered her one. She declined.
‘Yes, of course, go ahead.’
He lit the cigarette, drew on it deeply and shook his head. ‘Quite a spectacle, don’t you think? The last moments of joy before the imminent penance of Lent!’ He gave a deep throaty laugh that somehow made her join in.
‘It really was a magnificent show. I’ve never seen anything like it!’
‘Only the Venetians know how to celebrate in such an extravagant way. It’s all part of a long history of revelry and decadence in this city, where prince and subject, rich and poor joined in the festivities, and could move around in complete safety and freedom in the secure knowledge that their identity remained incognito. Carnival fulfils a deep human need for subterfuge, don’t you think?’ He gazed at her again, his expression unreadable.
She glanced at him sideways. ‘I suppose it’s an occasion for people to hide beneath a mask and to change a role they have in ordinary life.’
Despite the cold, they remained outside for a while, silently savouring Venice in moonlight. All the lights of the great city were reflected and broken up into countless points of fire, like diamond dust, in the ripples of the Grand Canal; and a velvet canopy of sky, powdered with stars above, sparkled over the distant roofs.
Paolo had turned away to stare at the dazzling view that lay in front of them. ‘None of the works of art of man equal the sight of Venice by the Grand Canal when the moon is up,’ he murmured, as though to himself, his attention riveted on the endless line of palazzi, the ghostly whiteness of their marble fronts rejuvenated by night. ‘For a few hours the moon hides the city’s frightful rotting façades behind a transparent silver mask, giving her some fairylike quality, a sort of innocence. Looking like this, one would never guess at the decay which gnaws at her core.’ And then facing her again, he added, ‘A rude awakening for the unsuspecting tourist when daylight comes, don’t you agree?’ His voice was passionate, a touch melancholy, and the deep timbre of it once again drew her to him in that curious way she found difficult to fathom.
His words echoed Venetia’s thoughts, but not quite. Ever since she could remember, Venice in moonlight had a strange magical power over her. She didn’t see the decay, only the enchantment. The whiteness of Paolo’s collar threw the darkness of his tan into relief. She remained silent but was aware of him like never before. For once she held his smoky-blue gaze, disturbed by its sad expression and the bitterness in his voice. They stared at each other, a curious feeling quivering inside her, like the vibration of a violin string after it has been played. It was no more than a moment, but it seemed so much longer to Venetia and it left her uneasy.
She glanced at her watch. ‘I really must be going.’
‘There’ll be no vaporetti running at this hour,’ Paolo remarked, his gaze still intent on her face, ‘and even if there are a few, they would not be safe. Too many drunken people out tonight looking for a good time. Let me give you a lift. My launch is not far off.’
‘I’m sure I’ll find a water taxi without difficulty.’
And then abruptly, his eyes darkened. ‘What is a pretty woman like you doing out on the town on her own, on a night like this? I can’t believe you have no fidanzato, Venetia. Is the man away? Do you have no father? No mother? No brother to care for you?’ His outburst was almost angry as he threw down his cigarette, crushing it vigorously beneath his heel.
Venetia bridled with irritation, though it was mixed with an odd thrill at the sound of his using her name for the first time. The questions were rather forward, she thought, choosing to focus on her sense of outrage. The fact that he had rescued her from a robber’s assault did not give him the right to be personal. The added vehemence of his reaction was too territorial for her liking. Venetia abhorred a macho stance in men. After all, it was to get away from a domineering father that, when her mother died, she had decided to make her life in Venice.
She forced a stiff smile to her lips. ‘Really, I’ll be fine. Thank you for your concern.’
Paolo sighed. ‘As you wish, signorina, but at least let me walk with you until you find a taxi. I don’t think you realise what the town will be like on this Carnival Night. Don’t forget, it’s the first carnival of the new millennium. I dare say the people of Venice will be celebrating tonight with even more enthusiasm than in previous years. The Piazza San Marco, which you must inevitably cross, will be the scene of Babylonian events one can hardly imagine.’
Venetia hesitated. He was probably right; she had already found the journey a little hazardous on her way to the ball. Still, she was uncertain. Sometimes the power of his presence frightened her; she sensed a possessiveness which she felt smothered by, even though he sounded really concerned and she knew perfectly well that his comments were sensible.
Paolo frowned and his mouth narrowed a little. ‘What are you afraid of? You risk much more going through the town on your own than if you ride alone with me in my launch.’ His face softened as he tried to suppress a smile. ‘I promise you I’m harmless.’
They laughed. He had a point. ‘Alright, I agree that it would be rather risky for me to walk through the crowds on a night like this,’ she admitted meekly. ‘I will still insist that you only accompany me until I find a taxi, though, and then we’ll part company.’
‘Very well then,’ he shrugged, but his eyes held amusement. ‘You’re an exasperatingly stubborn young woman.’
After gathering their cloaks, they went in search of their host to take leave. Venetia sensed that Umberto was slightly put out that they were leaving together; he gave them an acid look but refrained from comment.
The chilly breeze with its tang of salt was invigorating after the smoky atmosphere of Palazzo Palermi. Venice tonight was a city of rapture. It was late, but the carnival was still in full swing. The crowds were surging through the security barriers to fight each other, playfully throwing flowers, and dancing in the streets. The poliziotti were good-humouredly trying to keep them back, but it was a gesture doomed to failure as the scrum continued to hurl itself across the streets.
Like a diamond, this magnificent city, Queen of the Adriatic ̶ dubbed La Serenissima ̶ seemed to offer a thousand facets. There were stars in the sky and glitter everywhere else: the arcade in San Marco square was brilliantly lit, the shops and rows of alcoves a shimmering crystal grotto, secular and ecclesiastical buildings transformed by lights into something still more glorious. But that was only the stage on which figures seemed to move. They were caricatures of life, on the verge of the unreal, amusing as well as sinister and disturbing. The music was loud and noisy, with blares of sound coming from every corner. Vivaldi poured forth through loudspeakers and pre-Lenten celebrants danced by the thousand through the floodlit piazzas, their faces hidden by expressionless masks with slit eyeholes.
Paolo was right. Everywhere Venetia looked was crowded with masked people singing, embracing without restraint, in a vast, sprawling commedia. Hidden behind their disguise, it was as though they were indeed free to act as they wished, uninhibited by custom or convention. Venetia was grateful to have accepted Paolo’s invitation to accompany her, at least until she found a taxi. Legions of revellers stood roaring with enjoyment on the quayside of the Dogana and the Salute; and in a mass of highly decorated boats, some more spectators waited for the ladies’ regatta on the Grand Canal, an unusual and clearly welcome spectacle of women rowing boats in a race.
Paolo walked briskly, holding Venetia’s arm protectively, subtly proprietorial, shielding her with his stalwart body against any possible chance contact with those revellers thronging the squares and the bridges. For just a moment she forgot her misgivings, thinking only that this man, who seemed so steady, so self-assured, was different from the usual men she had dated over the last ten years. He was an intriguing mixture of sophistication and macho maleness, and she felt strongly attracted to him.
They had been walking through the crowds for almost half an hour. Venetia had to face facts: there were no taxis for hire; everybody was celebrating.
‘Alora, signorina, how do you feel? Will you now accept a lift in my launch, or would you prefer us to spend the rest of the night wandering aimlessly in Venice?’
They had reached a quay where a number of luxurious launches were moored. The smile he gave her as she met his piratical gaze lit up his face with a sudden boyishness, lifting from it the lines of bitterness that she had perceived earlier on the veranda.
‘To tell the truth, I feel rather irresponsible.’ She looked down a little sheepishly.
He placed a large hand on her shoulder and gave it a brief squeeze. ‘Non ti preoccupare, don’t worry, no harm done. My launch is here.’ He signalled towards an elegant boat in beautiful polished mahogany, with her name, ‘La Serenissima’, written in dark-red letters on the side. ‘It’ll be no trouble to drop you off at your apartment in Dorsoduro. As I’ve told you before, it’s on my way.’
‘Thank you. I really don’t know what I would have done without you.’
‘We say in Italian, ‘la necessità è la madre dell’invenzione’, necessity is the mother of invention.’
‘As we do in England, as well as “Don’t look a gift horse in the mouth”!’ replied Venetia, laughing nervously.
He held out his hand to help her aboard and as she prepared to step down into the launch, Venetia let go of the big black-and-white striped mooring pole. The boat rocked and she faltered, losing her balance. She would have been sent reeling down into the slimy water had not Paolo, with remarkable deftness, caught her, and she fell against his chest, the breath smashed from her breast.
The hands on her upper arms were iron-hard. The length of his body was so close to hers that she was unable to stop her own body’s response as once again a heat darted down inside her. Paolo murmured something into her hair which she did not grasp, and she looked up, what seemed an infinite distance, into blue irises so bright that they appeared almost like sapphires. Her mind emptied.
For a long moment they stared at each other, oblivious of everything else. Paolo pulled Venetia a little tighter against him and her hand slipped down to his chest. She could feel the steady thump of his heart under her fingers and sensed the warmth of his skin radiating through his clothes. His muscular body was lean and hard, and the spicy fragrance of his aftershave tinged with tobacco went straight to her head. His face was so close now that she could see the deep creases at the side of his eyes and his mouth, and other faint lines, a little lighter, which stood out on his parchment-tanned skin. Up this close, he looked older, with a few stray threads of grey in his thick black hair. Despite the noise and the pandemonium surrounding them, they stood clasped together as though alone in the world.
Flames ran through Venetia, and suddenly she wanted quite desperately to move even nearer to him, for his arms to hold her snugly in his embrace, to feel his mouth close over hers, to … She shut her eyes as she felt her need intensifying – the painful yearning for his caresses … This was not only madness, it was dangerous; but it had been a long time since she had felt this stirring inside her, since she had been aroused by the heat of a man’s body, since an emotion had possessed her with such violence. Venetia knew what this was and she hated it, but still could not help herself.
‘You’re tired, you can hardly stand up. Come inside and sit down, you’re shivering.’ Paolo’s voice came to her through the reluctant fog of her desire, as he guided her to one of the soft leather seats inside the cabin. He sat her down, brought her a thimble-size glass of grappa and settled himself beside her, after having poured one for himself. ‘Here, drink this, it will warm you.’
‘Grazie. Ancora una volta sei venuto in mio soccorso, once more you've come to my rescue,’ she said, a new elation in her voice as she took the glass from Paolo’s hands and tried to calm herself. She was thankful that he had been ignorant of the insanity she had been prey to for a few moments, and hoped he had not noticed the deeper colour that throbbed in her cheeks.
About the Author
Hannah Fielding is an incurable romantic. The seeds for her writing career were sown in early childhood, spent in Egypt, when she came to an agreement with her governess Zula: for each fairy story Zula told, Hannah would invent and relate one of her own. Years later – following a degree in French literature, several years of travelling in Europe, falling in love with an Englishman, the arrival of two beautiful children and a career in property development – Hannah decided after so many years of yearning to write that the time was now. Today, she lives the dream: writing full time at her homes in Kent, England, and the South of France, where she dreams up romances overlooking breath-taking views of the Mediterranean.
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