Four hours later, having filled an exercise book with notes, Mel needed to stretch her legs. A map in the study showed the village of Vodnjan was only a short distance.
As she went out into the sun, she saw Greg Brodie fixing the pool lights.
“Another beautiful day.” He straightened up.
“Yes. I was thinking of having an hour in Vodnjan.”
“That’s all you’ll need. Do you want a lift?”
“No, thanks, I need the exercise.” She saw the bike, fixed and ready, leaning up against the wall. “Can I take this?”
“It’s easier by car.”
“I can cope.”
It was as if he was reluctant for her to be independent. She jumped on the bike.
“Thanks. If you don’t see me in two hours, send a search party!”
Negotiating the gate, she glanced back and saw Greg on his mobile. It seemed odd, since before she emerged from the house he’d been immersed in fixing the light.
Vodnjan was a picturesque hill town with a main square. A general store with fruit and veg was at its hub, with ladies who spent more time chatting than buying. A Croatian flag fluttered over the town hall and in the corner was a deserted tourist office.
Mel stopped next to a café, the waft of fresh coffee irresistible. She took a shady table, ordered cappuccino and watched people meeting and greeting friends.
As she sat, a couple of lads wheeled a trolley with bottles of syrupy brown liquid. They gestured her to look, gabbling in their native tongue.
“I’m sorry, I don’t know if I want any. What is it?”
One boy poured a sample in a paper cup for her. Suddenly she heard a rich, deep American voice.
“Bit early in the day, isn’t it?”
She saw a long-legged young man with striking grey eyes. With his cropped beard he looked like a handsome buccaneer.
His sky-blue summer suit topped an open-neck shirt so white it hurt her eyes. Not an ordinary tourist, she decided, looking at his leather briefcase. He was possibly here on business.
“It might be,” she admitted, “but I don’t know what they’re trying to sell.”
“It’s grappa, the local firewater. They chase it down with coffee. The home-brewed version is great, but only if you like your alcohol to kick like a donkey. It’s more powerful than Kryptonite!”
The lads showed her different labels.
“It would be good to have something made in the area to take back. It’s difficult to buy nice presents. What’s in it?”
“It’s a distilled liqueur made from stems, seeds and gunk left over from the grapes after wine production. They flavour it with anything in season.”
He pulled his chair closer, examining the labels, and Mel smelled his aftershave on the sun-kissed air.
“This one’s flavoured with walnut, that one with sage and honey, and this with berries and leaves of mistletoe.”
She sniffed. Pungent alcohol mixed with herbs hit her between the eyes, making her head swim.
“Wow! It’s so aromatic. The mistletoe one would make a lovely Christmas present.”
Mel thought of Oscar, her former employer. He loved unusual liqueurs.
“Good idea,” the American agreed. “I’ll buy one myself. Shall I bargain with them for a special price for two bottles?”
Two minutes later the deal was done. Mel gave her new companion her share of the cost and they shook hands.
“Ryan Peacock. I’m real pleased to meet you.” His west-coast accent was dreamy, his handshake warm and confident. “Do you stay nearby?”
“I’m working at the Villa Lavanda.”
“Really? I’m going there tonight. I collect art. I don’t know Makso Yurcich well, but I’m keen to see his collection – Roman silver plate, ceramics by the Impressionists and Assyrian marble reliefs. He has varied tastes.”
“I’m not looking forward to it!” she confessed.
Ryan leaned forward.
“Why not? It sounds a fantastic evening!”
“I’m Makso’s new assistant. Very new. Before I came here I knew little about art. I’ve spent all morning studying, but I’ll be a fish out of water and won’t fool anyone.”
“You’re wrong.” Ryan ordered more coffee for them, sweet and strong. “The art world is full of guys blowing their own trumpets, men who love to show how much they know. They want to impress others. You won’t get a word in edgewise!”
She listened to his refreshing take on things, enjoying it.
“If you get stuck, come on over and talk to me. Now, tell me what you learned in your studies.”