The Lombardi Emeralds – Episode 07

He was wearing smart casual – shortsleeved shirt and crisp chinos. His forearms were suntanned as if he spent long hours working outside and May wondered exactly what his duties entailed.

“Thank you.” She was feeling more like her usual self after a breakfast of croissants and ripe peaches on Betta’s terrace. “It’s a lovely day,” she added in an attempt to lighten any atmosphere lingering over from yesterday’s encounter.

Vin flashed a smile in her direction.

“You don’t mind if I drive fast? I won’t exceed the limit, but there is very little traffic out this early in the morning and I like to open up the throttle to get the best out of the engine.”

Vin’s safe but swift driving erased May’s memory of her journey with the surly driver in his unpleasant-smelling taxi. The touch of the warm sun on her face and tang of rosemary and mint in the morning air revitalised her jaded senses and for the first time since she had arrived in Bella Acqua she felt faintly optimistic about the future.

The guards had opened the gates by the time Vin reached the villa and May couldn’t help sweeping a triumphant glance at the official who had barred her entry. Today they drove through without a hitch.

Vin drove round the back of the villa to a small studio surrounded by a sea of flowers – oleander, alpine asters and brilliant blue cornflowers.

“You’ll be staying here,” he explained as he hefted May’s suitcase out of the boot. “Auguste’s wife Giovanna used the studio as her personal refuge when she needed time alone. Gardening was one of her passions.”

“It reminds me of my grandmother’s garden.” May hoped Coco’s next-door neighbour was remembering to water the rockery in the family’s absence.

“Glad you like it.” Vin flashed another of his brief smiles.

A uniformed member of staff appeared and collected May’s suitcase.

“We’ve a whole week of festivities arranged,” he explained. “Someone will call for you before the start of the evening celebrations.”

She ventured into the cool solitude of the studio, marvelling at the luxury of the facilities. A claw-foot tub dominated the bathroom, which boasted fluffy towels, toiletries and an extensive vanity area. In the bedroom, an ethnic throw covered a huge bed and on the floor a display of woollen weave scatter rugs added a splash of colour to the rustic wooden furnishings.

Headed up with the familiar red dragon crest, a printed programme of events itemising the various activities arranged to celebrate Sr Lombardi’s eightieth birthday had been placed on the throw. Tonight’s party was to be a buffet supper on the terrace.

May scanned the list of activities. It included classical concerts, piano concertos and a violin sonata. May tapped the programme thoughtfully against the back of her thumb. This sort of thing was not Tish’s scene at all. She didn’t think she had ever seen her mother in what she would term grown-up clothes. Tish favoured a relaxed style of fashion and her personal life reflected her tastes.

May took off her shoes and stretched out on the bed, closing her eyes. A gentle tapping on the door roused her. She realised to her consternation she had been asleep for several hours.

A housemaid delivered a light afternoon snack on a tray. Seeing May’s suitcase was still on the floor she proceeded to unpack her meagre wardrobe. May flushed as the maid hung her peasant style skirts and summer tops in the cavernous wardrobe.

Still smiling, the maid dealt with her other items of luggage before indicating a second wardrobe. Opening the door she produced a cream shift dress, plain apart from a decorative bow on the hip and a pair of matching high heeled sandals, a style of footwear May never wore.

Pointing to the invitation, the maid indicated May was to wear this dress for the evening party.

May scrambled off the bed and inspected the dress hanging on the wardrobe door. Things were getting more confusing by the minute. Why had Sr Lombardi’s staff thought it necessary to provide her with a dress to wear for his birthday celebrations?

Showering and blow-drying her hair, she decided to twist it up in a chignon. When she was resting May liked to keep make-up to a minimum. However, tonight had to be the exception to the rule. She smudged smoky grey eye shadow on to her eyelids and keeping her hand steady applied mascara to her lashes. The woman who looked back at her in the mirror took her breath away. A European sophisticate had replaced jobbing actress May Maxwell.

Her aquamarine eyes flashed a message she did not understand. Had the dress done this to her? Could clothes and make-up change a personality? In a spirit of defiance she extracted a pair of earrings from her bag. Her mother had given them to her on her twenty-third birthday two years earlier.

“I named you after the month you were born, my darling,” she had said, “and emeralds are your birthstone. I am sorry they are costume but I couldn’t afford the real thing.”

May fingered the delicate anemone shaped faux diamond and emerald earrings before fixing them in her ears. With her confidence bolstered she took a deep breath and answered a discreet tap on the door. A uniformed maid was waiting dutifully outside.

Following her through the camellia garden, May reminded herself it was important not to get carried away by dresses and designer accessories. Tonight was her big chance to find out exactly what was the connection between her mother and the Villa Lombardi. That was all that mattered.


Tracey Steel

Having worked on a number of magazines over the years, Tracey has found her perfect place on The Friend as she’s obsessed with reading and never goes anywhere without a book! She reads all the PF stories with a mug of tea close by and usually a bit of strong cheese too!