Copyright © 2006, Janet
Reviews For ONE ITALIAN SUMMER by Janet Mills
"This is an entertaining read. It's refreshing to read about an older couple given a second chance at love and romance. Mills writes breathtaking and crisp visual descriptions of Italy, enjoyable for armchair travelers. This romance is well written and well detailed, from the couple's growing emotions to the scenery to the other characters. This book is truly enticing." 4 Stars - Katherine Taylor-King, Romantic Times Book Reviews
For a truly poignant and romantic read,
readers won’t go wrong selecting One Italian Summer.”
“There comes a time in one’s life when a change is needed to refresh the spirit, to drag it out of its present slump. One Italian Summer offers a reader a Harlequin-type romantic escape, to live and experience everything Natalie Compton feels. Janet Mills' prolific writing style takes you step by step through her character’s emotions, and brings the trip to Italy alive right in your living room. I recommend this Great Read to anyone seeking a bit of ‘Italian fun’.” - Lea Schizas – The Muse Book Reviews
Sample Chapter For ONE ITALIAN SUMMER by Janet Mills
Natalie Compton gripped the armrest of her coach class window seat as the jet bounced and shuddered on its ascent above the gleaming waters of the Atlantic. Take-offs always frightened her. Landings did too. She took several deep breaths and thought how ironic it would be to die before her feet touched foreign soil when she did not even want to go to Italy. Not anymore. Not since her friend had to back out of the trip. And not since Natalie had learned that she would be living alone when she returned home in less than a month.
“Don’t go there,” she whispered. “Don’t even think about it.”
The elderly gentleman in the seat beside her gave her a curious glance.
“Don’t go to the Riviera,” Natalie told him in a weak attempt to hide the fact that she’d been talking to herself. “Too many tourists. Too expensive.”
He nodded, then proceeded to pray aloud for the safety of the plane and its passengers as the aircraft continued to fishtail through the clouds. If she was frightened and he was frightened, then maybe there was something to be frightened about. Her fingernails made crescent-shaped dents in the armrests on both sides of her seat. She glanced out the window at the engines mounted in the wing, half expecting to see sparks shooting from them. After several tense moments of what the British captain called “light turbulence,” the airplane finally leveled off enough for Natalie to stretch the kinks out of her knuckles.
The seatbelt light chimed off on the panel above them. Natalie turned to the man in her row and smiled. “It should be pretty smooth sailing now until we land.”
“If the good Lord wills it.”
Natalie’s smile faltered. “Right.”
“Hey, Nat.” Brenda, one of the young women in their group, called from a seat in the middle section. Natalie knew the cute brunette’s mother from a recent technology workshop. “Check out the Italian thong. Did you get one?” An object with thin black straps dangled from Brenda’s fingers. The two blonde girls, in the seats next to her, giggled.
Natalie’s eyes widened. She had tucked the small plastic package that had been on her seat into the stretchy storage pocket in front of her. She reached for it now, finding a pair of socks, a travel toothbrush with a tiny tube of toothpaste…and a black thong. Never having been on a long flight before, Natalie had no idea what the airlines normally provided its passengers. Fresh socks and underwear—if thongs counted as underwear—sounded reasonable enough, she supposed.
Natalie stared at the item for a long moment, then shrugged. “Attire for the beaches of the Amalfi Coast, I guess.”
Brenda and her friends burst into laughter. Natalie gaped at the girls, who now wore their “thongs” over their eyes. One glance at other passengers reclining in nearby seats confirmed that the item in question was actually a sleep mask.
“Of course,” Natalie said with a chuckle, “they could double as eye covers, if you really needed them to.”
Brenda pushed the mask up onto her forehead. “You’re a good sport, Nat.”
“Oh, I know you’re laughing with me.” She smiled at the girl.
“Here.” Brenda passed a book across the aisle.
“Pardon me,” Natalie told the man beside her as she leaned over him. He’d been watching the exchange between her and the girls with a disapproving frown. Natalie glanced at the book cover. The Agony and the Ecstasy, one of the titles from Dr. Larson’s required reading list.
“Thanks, Brenda, but I’ve finished it. Didn’t you just love it?” The tome on Michelangelo’s life had fascinated her. Knowing that she would have the opportunity to see some of his masterpieces in person had helped convince her to make the trip regardless of her misgivings.
Brenda shrugged and made a face. “I found it a little dry. But look inside.”
The instant she saw the small white pill hidden in the center of the book, Natalie slammed it shut in alarm.
Brenda laughed. “It’s just a sleeping pill. Try it. We all took half of one. No joke.” The brunette gestured at the two other girls sitting with her, and they all nodded. “My mom has to take a whole one to have any effect, so you should probably do the same. I guarantee you will have a great nap and wake up ready for an exciting night in Roma.”
Natalie had planned on heading straight for bed when they arrived in Rome, though she doubted she would be able to rest much on her first night in a foreign country. A full night of sleep often eluded her even in the most familiar surroundings. She peeked at the pill again.
“Don’t worry, it’s legal,” Brenda assured her. “Dr. Larson recommended we try to nap during the flight, and you don’t want to start the trip sleep-deprived, do you?”
“Not especially.” Natalie thanked her and swallowed the pill with a sip of water, then turned back to the window.
As a child, she had imagined skipping happily through the fluffy expanse of white cotton candy clouds. Loathing that she had to take turns in the window seat with her sister on their family trips before her little brother was born, she’d lean across Sheryl and make excited comments about all the angels she saw playing harps and flutes on billowy clouds until the older girl would say, “Just take the stupid seat and shut up!”
Natalie leaned her forehead against the clear window panel. She saw no angels today. Instead, a scene from nearly two years ago replayed itself in her head. The day she finally had irrefutable proof that her husband had been having an affair with a younger, slimmer woman for several years. She’d been collecting clues for longer than she cared to admit, but Rick had always told her she was being paranoid and ridiculous. Like other foolish wives who close their eyes to the truth, Natalie had believed him because she couldn’t face what not believing him would mean. When he’d given her a full confession that Sunday morning in the bedroom they’d shared for twenty years, it hadn’t so much blindsided as startled her that he was finally coming clean.
Her friend, Carla, had first brought up the idea of the college-sponsored trip to Italy as a reward for everything they’d been through in the last two years. Natalie had been putting aside small amounts of money since her divorce, which the courts finalized six months before Carla’s. Building a new life for her and her angry teenage son had consumed almost every waking moment, but now Natalie had a secure job as a computer technician for the school district, which allowed her to take summers off. She owned a decent car and a small two-bedroom townhouse.
But the townhouse would be empty when she returned. Rick had been campaigning for their son, Jake, to move in with him, and the boy had recently announced his intention to do just that while Natalie was gone. There had been so many changes in the last two years. How would she bear another?
She took a deep breath and exhaled, reminding herself that things could be worse. Carla’s father had just died and her house was in foreclosure. Under the circumstances, Carla was able to get her deposit and plane ticket refunded while Natalie could not. She had tried.
Professor Pete Larson had assured her there were other ladies going on the trip. Natalie knew most of the “other ladies” were college students in their early twenties. At forty-three, she could be the mother of any one of them and certainly the oldest female on the trip. Although Pete’s daughter was close to Natalie’s age and fun to be around, Wendy would spend much of her time organizing tours and helping her father. In the airport waiting area, before their flight boarded, Pete had joked that Wendy would fetch his slippers and his cigars every night.
Turning at the sound of a cheerful flight attendant offering beverages, Natalie chose a bottle of water. She could already feel the pressurized air in the cabin sucking the moisture from every pore in her face. She would visit the tiny bathroom behind their seats shortly to add lotion to the clusters of fine wrinkles around her eyes. But you have a great forehead, she reminded herself with a private grin. During a recent appointment at her dermatologist’s, his assistant had complimented Natalie on her smooth forehead. Whether the comment had been sincere or merely obligatory, she had left the office with a smile, vowing to never raise her eyebrows in surprise or draw them into a frown again if she could possibly help it.
Feeling the effects of the pill, she lifted the footrest, then reclined her seat and positioned a small pillow behind her neck. She fiddled with the personal video monitor attached to her armrest and watched a small image of their jet make slow progress across a world map on the screen. Smothering a yawn, she changed the channel to watch an in-flight movie.
* * * *
“We are now approaching Heathrow International Airport. London’s current temperature is a pleasant twenty-one degrees Celsius, or about seventy degrees Fahrenheit for our American passengers…”
Natalie’s eyelids fluttered open and she sat up straight. Self-consciously, she wiped at the corners of her mouth, embarrassed at the evidence of drool from her “nap.” Glancing at her watch, she realized she had slept for nearly eight hours. A flight attendant stopped beside Natalie’s neighbor to collect his meal tray.
“Please put your seat in its upright position, ma’am,” the attendant said.
Natalie nodded and complied, her stomach growling as she caught a glimpse of the leftover food on the man’s tray. How she had managed to sleep clear through meals, movies, and general airplane mayhem was beyond her. Yet, aside from hunger, she felt amazingly refreshed.
Shifting in her seat, she smoothed her blouse and took a long drink of water from the bottle she’d started hours ago. The restroom would have to wait until they landed.
“Good stuff, huh, Nat?”
She grinned across the aisle at Brenda and the other two girls. “Incredible. I don’t sleep that well in my own bed.”
“I have plenty more where that came from,” the girl assured her.
After a brief layover at the London airport where Natalie gulped down a sandwich, they boarded their next flight for Rome. Natalie perused the tourist information in her Italian guidebook and accepted a diet cola and a package of pretzels when the attendants came down the aisle.
“My mom says you have a teenage son,” Brenda said from the seat beside her. “Do you have a picture?”
Natalie smiled and nodded, digging into the small travel purse that contained her passport, credit cards, and cash. She handed Jake’s class photo to the girl. “He’ll be a senior this year.”
“Very cute. He has your thick red hair and freckles. I bet the girls are calling.”
“Why didn’t he come with you when your friend had to back out?”
Natalie shrugged. “It’s his first summer with a full-time job. And traveling to Europe with your mother is definitely not cool.” Not to mention the fact that Jake preferred to be anywhere other than with her. He resented Natalie for the divorce. Since she refused to give her son the sordid details of his father’s betrayal, the boy had decided the destruction of their family was all her fault.
“Look, there’s the Eiffel Tower.” Brenda pointed out the window. “Right there, at the bend in the river.”
Natalie leaned over the girl’s lap. “That’s amazing we can see it from the air.”
“Ever been to France?”
“Does Paris, Las Vegas count?”
Brenda laughed. “I don’t think so.”
“Then, no. How about you?”
“Neither one,” Brenda replied, “but Suze, Renee, and I might head toward France after the college credit part of the program is over.”
“We got on the Internet before we left home, and there are plenty of youth hostels around, so we took a chance and didn’t make any reservations. We hope to find a place to stay.”
Natalie smiled. “Oh, to be young and adventurous again.”
“Hey, I think that’s Lake Geneva and the Matterhorn,” Brenda exclaimed a short while later. “We just might have to visit Switzerland, too.” She turned to Natalie. “Where are you going after the program?”
“My friend and I had planned on making a big loop up through Lake Como, over to Venice, then down to Pompeii, Sorrento, and the Amalfi Coast. We couldn’t cancel reservations in Venice and on the Isle of Ischia. Wendy may be able to go with me. If not, I might just go on my own.”
“Now that’s adventurous,” Brenda said. “Really. I’m proud of you.”
“I haven’t done it yet.”
“One way or another, you will. And you will love yourself for it.”
After a smooth landing at Leonardo Da Vinci Airport, they cleared customs, changed some of their money into euro, then stood by their designated luggage carousel to claim their bags. As the digital display flashed their flight number and various members of their party stepped forward to grab their suitcases, Natalie watched the circling bags with increasing concern. Knowing that many people carried black luggage, she had brought a distinctive green suitcase. By the time another flight number displayed above the carousel, Natalie knew hers wasn’t going to show up. Like mourners at a funeral, Brenda and her friends gave her sympathetic smiles.
“I may have to wear that thong tomorrow,” Natalie said with a sigh.
“Your bag will turn up,” Wendy assured her. “Let’s go file a report and have the airline deliver it to the hotel. You’ll probably get it later tonight.”
A short time later, they boarded a train for downtown Rome. The warmth and humidity of the June night surrounded Natalie like a cape. Emerging from the station, she inhaled an awed breath as the vast ruins of the Coliseum rose before her, gently lit beneath a clear black sky.
“As many times as I’ve been here, I never get tired of this sight,” Wendy said. “Our hotel is just a few blocks away. We’ll check in and drop off our bags, then walk around the Colosseo.” She waved at the dozen travelers in their party to follow her up the sidewalk. Natalie laughed as Brenda snapped a picture of three nuns crowding into a curtained photo booth next to the train station entrance. Vendors with various souvenirs stared and whistled at the young American women as they walked by. The girls giggled.
“Get used to it, ladies,” Wendy announced with a grin. “Italian men are very appreciative. Also, beware of the gypsies. They are everywhere in the cities and especially in crowds. The women distract you with their babies or by shouting at you while their children steal your bag.”
Natalie kept her gaze on the Coliseum and her belongings close as they climbed a sloped sidewalk above the majestic ruins. After two years anticipating this trip, she was finally here. And, she admitted to herself, glad for it.
Small cars, taxis, buses, and Vespa scooters whizzed past them in the busy street. At the top of the rise, Wendy tossed her long blonde hair over one shoulder and stepped off the curb into oncoming traffic. Natalie watched in horror, then amazement, as the speeding vehicles braked to a stop for the woman to cross the street.
“Never hesitate,” Wendy advised as she led the way. “And don’t make eye contact with Italian drivers. Just step out and move quickly.” She glanced back at her father, who walked slowly next to Harold, the other elderly gentleman in their group. “Hustling right now would be a good thing, boys.”
They followed Wendy up a narrow, dead-end street to a closed wrought iron gate. The lights of the picturesque three-story hotel welcomed them as they stepped through the entrance of a cobblestone courtyard.
“Wait here and I’ll get our room assignments,” Wendy instructed.
Natalie pulled a water bottle out of her travel bag and took a long drink. The back of her neck was damp with perspiration. She hadn’t expected such heat at night. She hoped the hotel rooms had big windows, air conditioning, or both.
Wendy came out beneath the awning on the hotel steps. “All right, we have less rooms than we asked for, but it will be fine as long as Harold can bunk with my dad and Natalie doesn’t mind me for a roommate.”
“Okay by me,” Natalie said. She watched as Wendy handed out keys and sent small groups off to their assigned rooms inside the hotel.
“The elevator is only big enough for two people,” Wendy called after them, “or one person and a suitcase.” She turned with a smile. “Well, ladies. We get the annex.” Natalie followed Brenda and her two friends as Wendy directed them through an ivy-crowned entrance off the courtyard into a short hallway with a door on each side. The other woman handed Natalie a key. “This is us on the left. The girls are across the hall. These rooms aren’t as fancy as the ones inside the other building, but it will be quieter out here.”
Natalie let herself into the dark and stuffy room. After locating the light switch, she walked to the lone window and opened the wooden shutters to reveal glass panes with iron bars on the exterior. The window didn’t open very far, but it did allow some air into the little room.
Wendy picked up a remote control on a narrow table between the twin beds and aimed it at the air conditioning unit above the door. Cool air immediately began to drift over them.
“Ahh,” Natalie said with a sigh, dropping onto one of the beds. “I’ll take this one.”
They traded turns freshening up in the small but clean white-tiled bathroom, then headed back out to the courtyard to meet the others.
“Don’t wait on us,” Pete called from an upstairs window, chewing on a cigar.
Natalie, Wendy, and the young women in their group set off down the street toward the glow of the city. In the distance, Natalie could see the ruins of the Forum and many impressive buildings lit up against the dark. One building stood out in stark contrast to the others.
“That’s Vittoriano, a monument to Victor Emmanuel II, the first king of a united Italy,” Wendy explained. “Most Romans don’t like the architecture. They say it looks like a wedding cake.”
Muted strains of what could only be an orchestra rode the warm airwaves as they neared the Coliseum.
“I wonder what’s going on,” Wendy said. “I see a lot of people sitting on the grass on the hillside.”
They hurried over the cobbled streets toward the music, descending stone stairs to the base of the ancient amphitheater. Natalie gazed up at the massive building, awed at the knowledge that the structure had been standing for centuries. American architecture was so recent compared to European. It boggled her mind.
“Wow!” Brenda exclaimed. “It’s a symphony.”
As they neared the park side of the Coliseum, the lights bathing the amphitheater changed from blue to purple to gold to pink while a full orchestra played below the arched arcades. A shiver of pure delight raced up Natalie’s back. She had never seen such a spectacle. Mesmerized by the sights and sounds spread out before her like a grand buffet, she didn’t immediately notice the two men taking the stage until their commanding tenor voices rose above the appreciative crowd.
People dressed in formal evening attire sat in rows of chairs surrounding the stage. Natalie felt a little frumpy in her denim skirt and short-sleeved blouse. Their group stood among the crowd on the cobblestones beyond the fenced in area, while more people lined the grassy hillside. A few spectators watched from lofty perches in the trees of the park.
“Incredible,” Natalie whispered to no one in particular. “Our first night in Rome and we get to witness this.” She dug into her bag and withdrew her new digital camera to take a short video of the concert. Moving the switch on the camera, she took several still shots as well. She turned to snap an image of Brenda and her friends as they flirted quietly with several young Italian men nearby.
Natalie returned her camera to her bag and took out her watercolor pencils and a small sketchpad. Opening the pad to the first page, she wrote Colosseo, Rome, Italy, June 10th. She chose gray to quickly sketch the basic structure of the building, then purple to emphasize the colored floodlights.
“I didn’t know you were an artist,” Wendy said over Natalie’s shoulder. “You’re good.”
“Thanks. This whole night is surreal.”
“We’re really lucky to have gotten here tonight. I had no idea this was happening. My dad and Harold are missing out.”
They stood watching and listening as the tenors and their accompaniment performed classical songs and operatic ballads for the better part of the next hour. Toward the end of the concert, Brenda announced that they were going clubbing with their newfound Roman friends.
“Don’t do anything I wouldn’t do,” Natalie told the girl. Her light tone disguised the tug of motherly alarm at the thought of the twenty-somethings out on their own in a foreign city.
“Which leaves my options wide open, right?”
Natalie grinned. “Have fun and be careful.”
“When in Rome…” Wendy said with a laugh. “You girls know that I’ll be pounding on your door before eight. Breakfast is at eight-thirty, and Dad’s lecture starts promptly at nine in the inside courtyard. You don’t want to be late.”
Natalie watched the girls walk away with their escorts and said a silent prayer for their safety. Then she and Wendy strolled around the outskirts of the Coliseum and the Arch of Constantine before heading back to the hotel. On the way, they stopped at a gelato shop. Natalie selected a cup of After Eight and savored the rich mint ice cream on their leisurely walk.
Pete and Harold sat in wrought iron chairs in the hotel courtyard, smoking cigars and sipping clear liqueur from short glasses. “Have some Grappa,” Pete invited, motioning for them to sit in the vacant chairs. Natalie and Wendy joined the older men.
“Any sign of a green suitcase with a bright red address tag?” Natalie asked hopefully.
“Not yet,” Pete replied. “But don’t worry. It’ll get here.”
“Grappa is strong stuff,” Wendy said as her father poured them each a drink. “Don’t say I didn’t warn you.”
The first taste of the powerful liqueur burned all the way down Natalie’s throat. She gasped in shock. “You…weren’t…kidding. That has one helluva kick.”
Pete chuckled and topped off her glass.