Julia’s house, set in a small garden among sweet chestnut trees on the side of a valley through which a fast and permanently icy stream ran, was not the traditional cottage she had for years envisaged whenever she thought of this part of Italy. Instead, that sort of characteristic Tuscan villa was where her landlords lived, while her house was a far more modest cottage their family had built in the 1970s. Looking at the Carlucci family villa when she first arrived, Julia was at pains to understand why anyone living there would want or even need a guest cottage at all — spread over three storeys with a huge basement, it had so many very beautiful rooms. But as she got to know her landlady, Carlotta, and the eldest son, Ernesto, she eventually learned that her own little house had been built for the family to live in while the big house was being restored, a project that had taken several years … and to Julia, unimaginable sums. Once the villa was ready, in all its creamy timber, golden-veined marble, frescoed, gilded and terracotta splendour, the small house had been left empty for a while, then leased as holiday accommodation, or opened up to university friends of Ernesto and his siblings. Eventually, after several summers of student revelry and general abandon, Carlotta reclaimed it and did it up, ostensibly as a comfortable retreat for her friends who preferred to stay close but independently, but really thinking that once any of her children slowed down enough to show any interest in giving up big-city life and taking over the big house, the little one would one day become her own dower cottage.
Julia had loved it from the moment she’d opened the door and walked in that late winter afternoon. There were two connecting bedrooms and a bathroom off the kitchen end of the big open-plan living area, and a bigger bedroom and bathroom at the other end. The two smaller bedrooms joined the main part of the house at a right angle, and outside, in the corner of this L-shape, a courtyard had been paved and planted. The living room and the main bedroom opened to this courtyard with wide French doors that let in plenty of light. Walls were roughly plastered and washed creamy-white, windows were hung with plain linen curtains on big wooden rings, furnishings were simple — it was perfect.
As she swung her little Fiat into the drive by the front door, James woke up and rubbed his face with two enormous hands.
“This I where I live,” Julia said.
“But what am I … ?”
“I figured it’d be easier for you to stay a night here and then tomorrow we can find you somewhere else to stay.”
“But I …”
She opened her car door. “Got any better ideas? You’ll never get accommodation round here right now — the Paleo is bigger than Ben Hur.”
James got out of the car and staggered slightly as he straightened. “It’s food poisoning,” he told her.
“In Sienna?” Julia was incredulous.
“Yes, in Sienna. Must have been a dodgy prawn … umph … in the risotto … ugh.” He made a dreadful swallowing sound and Julia thought she’d better get him inside quick and close to a loo.
“You don’t look too crash hot. Come in and lie down and we can talk later.”
He made no argument when Julia led him into her room, showed him the bathroom, gave him a towel and left him to it.
It was far easier to let him have her room, the main bedroom. One of the two smaller rooms at the other end of the house was now her studio, and she could easily sleep in the other adjoining one, out of James Connor’s way, out of earshot, and with access to her work. And the phone and her computer. And the kettle.
Mentally thanking Carlotta for ensuring the house had good plumbing and a workable kitchen, Julia put on the kettle for tea and started unpacking her shopping and then, mug of tea in hand, the package from the post office. Fresh new brushes, fresh new tubes of watercolour paints, a box of teabags, a bar of her favourite chocolate, and a quick hello-and-goodbye note from her sister in Bristol, the source of all these goods.
It wasn’t until she’d wandered outside into the courtyard that she remembered the letter from Massimo, and his and his gallery’s interest, and her stomach gave another little jump up to meet her heart.
It had been a hot day and the early evening air was still and warm, so Julia was doubly glad she had no need to cook tonight, not fancying the idea of food smells wafting though to her poor guest — and recalling how he’d blanched at the very mention of that killer risotto. No, this was her night up at the big house playing Scrabble with Carlotta. The two of them had quite a routine, with a light dinner on the terrace and a couple of good games. The older woman adored Julia's company and though Julia’s Italian was pretty good, she insisted they spoke and played in English.
Julia had just played “tic” when Carlotta turned it into “quixotic” and leant back in her chair triumphantly.
“So, come on Julia, what news from Sienna? Oh my God! That sounds so, Shakespearean doesn’t it?” She laughed and pushed back the sleeves of her linen shirt and crossed her legs, nudging Julia's leg playfully with an elegantly sandalled foot.
“Come on, have you heard yet from that gallery … um, what is it called?”
“Martinelli, and yes, I had a letter today.”
Carlotta jumped forward in her chair. “And do they like you?”
“Come on, what did they say? Honestly, Julia, this is like making mud from a stone.” Carlotta had an endearing habit of mangling her English clichés.
“You mean like getting blood from a stone!”
“No matter – just as hard. What did they say?”
“Well, they said they liked my work …”
“And Massimo wrote the letter himself, and …”
“They said thanks for showing them and they’d speak to me again soon …”
“… about the possibility of an exhibition there next spring!”
Carlotta ran on the spot in her chair and reached for the wine bottle to top up their glasses.
“My dear girl, I’m excited to bits for you — I knew it! I just knew it!”
Carlotta topped up their wine glasses.
“You’ll have to work hard, won’t you? How many paintings will you need?”
“Well, I’ve got about a dozen finished at the house right now, though I think I just sold one of those online this week, so I’m about halfway there,” Julia said.
“I’ll find out when I ring Massimo, but for the space, I reckon I’ll need at least twenty, so I’m aiming to paint about twenty-four or twenty-five so I can choose the best ones to show.”
“That’s more than one a month, you know.”
“I do know! I have a couple on the go at the moment, and it will all work out. I’ll get there.”
“Of course you will. Your turn, you know.”
It wasn't until they were clearing away the tiles of their second game that Julia remembered to tell Carlotta about James Connor.
“You mean to say you kidnapped the poor man?” Carlotta asked in amazement after Julia recounted the whole story.
“Well not exactly, I was just trying to help him out. It’s the only thing I could think of.”
“Oh that hotel, what’s it called? I know the one you mean, right behind the main square, yes. How intolerable.”
“So I thought I’d better let him stay until he’s well enough …”
Carlotta sighed. “But what if he’s a …”
“Look, it’s okay — I can lock my bedroom door and I’ll keep the car keys close tonight!” Julia was only half-serious, but Carlotta was not.
“I won’t sleep tonight now for worrying about you down there. It’s such a pity Ernesto is away this week.”
“It will be fine, don’t worry. If you could have seen the state he was in when we got to the house, you’d understand that he is far too weak and ill to do anything right now other than sleep.”
“I’ll call by tomorrow to look him over.”
“No, he’s so sick he may not even get out of bed tomorrow. I’ll ring you.”
“Well don’t forget — if I don’t hear from you by 10am, I’m coming down.”
When Julia made up her bed that night, no light showed from the other end of the house and there was not a sound from the obviously sleeping James Connor. She put her car keys on the bedside table, locked the door and with her mind fully on the work ahead of her got into bed to thumb through one of her many sketchbooks, knowing she would have to stick to a tight schedule in the coming months.
It was the smell of coffee that woke her the next morning, and noises in the kitchen. A much less rumpled James Connor was in the kitchen looking for cups, his hair damp from the shower, clean shirt and jeans in evidence.
“Good morning. Sugar and milk?” he asked, as watched her padding through into the kitchen.