New Beginnings, the 6th and final book in the Italian Summer series, is finally here! YAY!!

 

 

Elsa, the mother of Ava and Rona, has been with us since the first book in the Honeymoon Series, Honeymoon For One. She has also been in the background in the spin-off Italian Summer books. And now you get to discover her story in New Beginnings.

Prologue

“Not now, Viktor.” Elsa giggled. Her husband of 19 years hugged her from behind and dropped a silken kiss upon her neck. “The girls …”

“They’re in their room,” he said softly, before leaving her a lingering kiss that promised more. Tiny flutters danced along her belly as she stirred the pot of lamb stew. Her husband’s favorite.

The poor man had worked hard these past two weekends. As well as working at the electronics factory, he also worked as a handyman on the side, getting work through word of mouth. Viktor had the uncanny knack of fixing things. Friends and neighbors called on him if any of their appliances stopped working. If they had car trouble, or problems with household appliances, Viktor was there, and he never charged a dime. His best friend, Vernon, told him he would have been a rich man if he had.

“Lamb,” he said, sniffing the air contentedly.

“It’s your favorite,” she replied. “And you deserve it.” He hugged her tighter, his hands resting just above her stomach, teasing her. “It’s nice having you at home for a change.” The last two weekends they had barely seen him.

“I would rather be here every weekend if I had a choice, but I don’t have choice. You know how it is. Anything extra helps.” She couldn’t dispute that. They needed every cent they could get.

She turned the heat low, then turned around to face him.  “I just wish you didn’t have to work so hard, honey.”

She was a homemaker, but there would have been not much of a home to make, had it not been for Viktor’s insane work schedule. If only he would let her work. She could now that the girls were eight and nine years old. She could get a babysitter to drop them off at school, and try to get a part-time job around the girls’ school hours. If she worked, then Viktor could ease up on his hours. But each time she brought the topic up, he dismissed it. “Later, you can work later, when the girls are in their teens,” he would say. “They need you at this age,” he would tell her. And the classic, “You leave all the money worries to me.”

He kissed her nose. “The extra work came up, and I took it. I wasn’t going to turn it down.”

“But you said you’d keep this weekend free.” It was excessive. He’d worked fourteen days without a break.

“It was a quick job today. It wasn’t too bad. You know how I want my girls to have the best.”

“We don’t need the best, we just need you.

“Daddy!” They pulled apart as Rona, the older of the two, ran into the kitchen. “I have to hand in my rainforest tomorrow. You have to help me! Martha Mackenzie’s canopy is prettier than mine and it has more leaves. Real leaves, and real tree bark. We have to make mine better.”

Viktor laughed and ruffled her bangs. “We can’t have that. Ours is going to be much, much better. I’ll work on it with you tomorrow.”

Now, Daddy! We have to do it now!”

“Daddy’s going out,” Elsa told her. This girl of hers knew no patience. When she wanted something, she wanted it immediately.

Rona scowled. “But…”

“No buts. You’ll have to wait.”

Viktor slipped on his jacket. “I want to come back and have dinner with my girls, and then we can all have a game of Backgammon.”

“Monopoly.” Rona insisted.

“Monopoly, then.” He bent down and kissed the top of her head. “I won’t be long, less than an hour,” he told Elsa.

“Do you have to go now? Can’t it wait?” Why couldn’t he stay at home now that he had finished for the day?

“I would rather get it out of the way.”

“Is it really so urgent? Couldn’t you pay it on Monday?”

“It’s the final instalment, honey. I like to make good on what I owe.”

She understood. He was like that. Not wanting to owe anyone a dime, even in this case when the store owner had let them buy a tent and pay for it in three instalments.

“We’ll be waiting” said Elsa. She walked over to him and pulled a stray thread from his jacket. It would be good, all of them having dinner together. It didn’t happen often.

He dropped a kiss on her mouth, a kiss that was soft and chaste and looked at her in that way he often did when he was in the mood and feeling happy. She shook her head and stifled a grin. Even after two children, and many years of marriage, her husband still wanted her, still got excited at seeing her body even though it was no longer pert and tight.

“What are you crossing off now?” He asked Ava, their younger daughter. She had climbed onto a chair and was examining the family calendar. This year’s one had pictures of animals and the picture for this month was a giraffe wearing love heart-shaped sunglasses.

“Four months to go,” squealed Ava, excitedly, giving them a toothless grin. She had lost both of her main front teeth.

“You’re already counting down now?” Viktor asked, sweeping her up off the chair and into his arms so that they both faced the calendar.

“Ava, honey, aren’t you a little too big for Daddy to carry you?”

“He picked me up!” Her pigtails shook as she turned around.

Viktor was a big man, tall and lean and strong, but like most men, he wasn’t invincible. He took on too much, and she worried, in the way that wives worried about their men, their breadwinners.

“What are you crossing off?”

“I’m counting the months,” Ava squealed. “Five months ‘til we go camping!”

“And you’re excited already?”

She nodded, making her pigtails shake even more. “I’m really ‘xcited, Daddy.”

“We’re going to have a blast.” Viktor set Ava down and gave Elsa a knowing look. An I-told-you look. Justifying the trip, with its cost and him wanting to make sure he had everything they needed. The overtime he had done was so that he could pay for a bigger tent and all the equipment. Viktor had been adamant about buying a new, bigger tent. Big enough to stand up in.

“Now we just need to convince Mommy to come.”

“Viktor, don’t you start on that.” Elsa recoiled at the idea of it. The thought of sleeping outside, even in a tent, didn’t appeal to her.

“We want Mommy to come, don’t we?” He was goading the girls, much to her indignation.

“We want Mommy! We want Mommy!” The girls began to chant in unison.

“Viktor!” she cried, eyeing him in annoyance. Nothing and nobody was going to convince her to go.

He winked at her. “I’ll be back, girls,” he said, waving his hand as he walked out of the door. At the door, he paused and gave Elsa a look, the type of look that promised a good night of loving.

 

It was only when the stew had turned dry, that she looked at the clock and realized that Viktor had been gone for over two hours.

“I’m hungry, Mommy!” Rona wailed.

“We need to wait for Daddy to get back,” she said, alarm setting in as the clock struck 8.

“But I’m hun-gree.”

“Here,” said Ava, picking out an apple from the fruit bowl and handing it to her sister.

“I don’t want an apple. I want that.” Rona pointed to the pot. Elsa scratched her neck, and glanced at the clock again. It shouldn’t have taken this long. Unless he had run into some friends. Viktor knew almost everyone in the neighborhood. Or maybe he had run into Vernon, who lived only a few blocks away.

“Would you girls like to have your dinner now?” Elsa eyed the four plates and the cutlery she had put down on the table in preparation.

“Caaaan we?” Rona’s large eyes had more than a look of hunger in them.

“No,” said Ava. “We’re waiting for Daddy.”

Rona’s lower lip trembled. “I’m soooo hungry.”

“Why don’t you watch Sesame Street?” Elsa suggested.

“That’s for babies!” cried Rona, an angry expression lining her face.

Elsa was at her wits end, and took them each by their hand, and sat down, putting her arms around them. “We’ll watch something on TV for half an hour, and by that time Daddy will be back, and then we’ll eat. And you,” she said, turning to Rona, “can have an extra-large slice of pie.”

“Okay,” said Rona, looking none too pleased.

She needed to do something normal, otherwise her nerves would fray to shreds. Worry had set in, and she forced herself to watch TV with the girls, and to laugh when they did.

She rolled her neck and shoulders in a bid to ease the tightening she felt all across her body, and even as she stared at the screen, her eyes glazed over the cartoon that Rona had put on. She held the girls tightly against her, encircling them in her arms, trying to give them a semblance of calm, a safe haven. But all she could do was worry and fret, even though she knew it would soon be for no reason.

Viktor would be back any moment now, and they would sit and have dinner together. But half an hour came and went, and as each moment ticked by, the dread inside her grew. Her stomach felt heavy, as if she had swallowed rocks.

He wouldn’t have been this late. Not talking to friends. He knew that they were waiting.

Something was wrong.

It was impossible to ignore it any longer. Her knee started to bounce, and she stilled it with her hand, then got up and walked into the kitchen, her heart beating out of control. She tried to calm herself down.

He had been late before.

But never this late.

Yet there could be a good reason why. Her ears strained for the sound of his key in the lock, and the noise as he bounded into the house, his irrepressible smile lighting up the room.

“Mommy, I’m hung-reeeeeeeeeee!”

Rona had followed her into the kitchen.

“I know, honey. You and your sister come and sit down, I’ll get your dinner. Bring me your plates.”

“Ava!” Rona yelled. Elsa jumped at the sound. Her already-frayed nerves had her tottering on the edge of hysteria. She tried to breathe slowly, even as the fear chewed at her belly.

The girls ran into the kitchen with their plates. Elsa ladled out the stew and gave them each a slice of the fresh bread she had baked earlier.

“Aren’t you eating, Mommy?”

“No,” she said, wringing her hands together. “I’ll wait for Daddy. We don’t want him to eat alone, do we? You go on, Ava.”

She could feel the palpitations in her chest, and willed for the next hour to be over so that she could regain normality again. When the doorbell rang, her immediate reaction of relief quickly faded as she rushed to the door, knowing, at the same time, that Viktor always had the key, that he wouldn’t have rung the doorbell.

She opened the door in trepidation and her heart almost jumped into her throat to find a police officer staring back at her.

“Mrs. Ramirez?”

A chill slid over her, one she tried to counteract with plausible excuses. Viktor’s car has broken down.

“Ma’am.” He removed his cap, and that was when she knew. Knew even as she saw his solemn eyes, and the downcast expression on his face. Her mouth turned to sand. Dry. Dry. Dry. When she tried to speak, her vocal chords seized up. All she could see was the police officer’s hat, and the car parked in full view behind him.

“Who is it, Mommy?” Rona rushed to the door, and behind her, her sister followed. She felt their tiny hands on her thighs, and didn’t dare to turn to look at them, yet she was aware of them hovering around her legs, waist high, their bobbing, curious, inquisitive little faces staring at the police officer.

“Go back inside, girls.” She barely recognized her own voice, a voice which sounded strong and composed, and was the complete opposite of how she felt inside. When Rona failed to move, her voice grew stern. “Don’t let me tell you again, young lady.”

She waited until they were out of earshot then turned to face the now paler-than-ever police officer.

He didn’t even need to say a word because she already knew. A force, stronger than gravity, seemed to pull her to the floor, and yet she was still standing. How was it possible, when all around her, the world seemed to spin out of control, rotating around her like an F5 tornado.

“I’m very sorry, Ma’am, but I regret to inform you that your husband was involved in a collision with another automobile. He didn’t survive.”

She heard him say a collision, and she heard him say that Viktor died instantly. The floor seemed to sink beneath her, and a sound, something like a wail, barely escaped her mouth before she clamped down on it. She still had some semblance of restraint, to know that the girls were within earshot. To know that she could not cry out in anguish, as if the seat of her soul had been ripped out. Days, or maybe weeks later, she would blame herself for his death. If only she had stood up to him and demanded that she also get a job. If she had worked, then her husband might not have had to work so hard, and they might have had the money to pay for the camping equipment in one go, and not in three instalments, and then Viktor would not have met with his death that night when 22 year old Owen Norton, who had been driving under the influence of alcohol, had crashed into Viktor’s car. The car they had saved up for a year.

And now, here she was, facing this concerned looking police officer. Knowing, sensing that the news was bad was one thing, but hearing this man say it, was another. Her legs buckled then, and she fell forward, straight into the police officer’s arms, catching him unawares as they both half fell and half managed to stay standing. She was limp, and lifeless, like a marionette puppet without the strings.

All she could see was that last wave of Viktor’s, the last look he’d given her as he’d stood at the door, telling her he would be back, promising her with his eyes, a look which only she could understand. A look in which he promised her the kind of loving they hadn’t managed in weeks.

“Mommy,” the girls were back. The sound of Rona’s voice made her straighten up and take charge, forced her to pull herself together.

“Mommy?” The fear in her daughter’s voice was hard to miss. Elsa turned around. “Girls, go back, and I’ll be along soon.” But Rona stood defiant, until Ava tugged at her arm and pulled her. “Mommy says we have to go.”

“Ma’am, I could stay here a while until you—”

The sound of footsteps and heavy thudding caught her attention, and then a figure appeared beside the policeman. Someone familiar. Vernon. Panting, and disheveled, as if he had run around the block at lightning speed.

His face white, his eyes darting to her face, then to the police officer’s face.

He looked as if he had been crying.

Her heart plummeted then, because Vernon represented the truth. Vernon, who loved Viktor like a brother, looked the way she felt. Shell-shocked.

The officer might have made a mistake, he might have knocked on the wrong door, mixed up the wrong man. But Vernon was here, looking like he did because there had been no mistake.

“Tell me it isn’t true,” she screamed. It was when he shook his head, that she fell into his arms. Fell and sobbed as she tried hard to stifle her cries in the padded fabric of his jacket; sobbed, because she could no longer hold back the thorns that had cut into her throat.

When she looked up, the police officer had gone, and Vernon looked at her with haunted eyes.

Days later he would tell her that he had seen Viktor’s car in the middle of the intersection, that another car had hit the driver’s side, that Viktor hadn’t stood a chance, that the other driver had lived, the one whose brakes were faulty, the one who had killed Viktor.

And Viktor had died on impact.

It was a miniature saving grace, in a litany of cold, hard facts, that he had died without suffering. She had clutched to that one miniscule detail, trying to glean from it some semblance of hard comfort.

It was the worst thing she had ever had to face; confirmation that the love of her life, her beloved Viktor, had died. The world in which she, they, had carved out their own corner of paradise seemed all of a sudden to be cruel and unjust.

Later at his funeral she would sit in numb shock, trying to reconcile that the man with whom she had shared almost two decades of her life, now lay inside the casket. Another cruel fact of life—the girls had come much later, and he had had such a short time with them.

They still had so many things they had wanted to do together, had talked of so many plans; the girls to raise, and dreams to move to a bigger house, and so many other things to think about.

Vernon followed her as she walked into the living room to find the girls sitting at the table. The sight of Viktor’s empty plate sliced through her like a machete and she stifled the sob that rose in her throat.

“What did the police officer want?” Rona asked.

“Tell us, Mommy,” said Ava. Her blue-green eyes shone with wonder, and for a moment Elsa envied her the bliss of not knowing. She tried to stretch it out, telling them and her mind delved into hard, dark places as she tried to think fast, wanting to spare her girls the horror which had decimated her simple but beautiful life.

You cannot be broken. The girls need you.

She smoothed a hand over her hair, wiped the same hand over her face, and tried to reach down for something inside her, something solid and strong to grab hold of. But there was nothing like that left in her. And yet she was still breathing, she was still thinking, life was still moving on and the clock was still ticking.

How was she still able to stand up and breathe?

How was she able to even think?

It couldn’t be true, her logical mind told her. This wasn’t real. For if it was real, her world would have shattered and she would have ceased to exist.

“What’s wrong with Uncle Vernon?” Rona asked. Vernon was right behind her. She felt his hand on her shoulder.

She swallowed then, and swallowed again, then a third time, and held out her arms, because she couldn’t talk, and because she was trying her damndest not to fall to the floor. Her legs were boneless, and she had to concentrate to stay upright because if she fell to pieces, the girls would be scared and fall to pieces with her, and she could not allow that to happen.

“I have some terrible news,” she said, kneeling on the floor and seeing the surprised look on their faces, because she never knelt on the floor. Squeezing her eyes tightly, because she needed that moment, to reach deep down inside to claim some courage, she opened them and stared at her daughters in turn. “I—I,” she stopped, a sob held at the base of her throat, needing release, and it took all the strength she didn’t have, to keep it suppressed. “I don’t know how to tell you,” she whimpered, her voice breaking, the floodgates opening. “Daddy … daddy had an accident.”

“What, Mommy?” Ava asked, her lip trembling.

“Daddy had a nasty accident, and he … he… he’s gone to heaven.”

“Heaven isn’t real!” Rona cried.

The comment caught her by surprise and for a moment—while she questioned how, and when and from where her daughter had reached this conclusion—it took the edge off the awful truth she was in the middle of divulging.

“Listen to me carefully, girls,” she said, recovering quickly, a sudden strength flowing into her veins. “Daddy was in a car accident, and…and…and…” She couldn’t finish the sentence. It stuck in her throat, making her convulse as she struggled to say these words which sounded hollow, which didn’t make sense.

“Can he see us in heaven?” Ava asked, looking at the ceiling. Elsa nodded, and stroked her daughter’s hair then held both girls to her chest as they collapsed on the floor in a human heap of helplessness. Nothing could bring her husband back, and nothing else mattered, except for her girls.

 

Chapter 1

 Twenty two years later …  

Her granddaughter’s 1st birthday was the perfect reason to return to Verona. She wasn’t sure about being here in the cold winter months, for she so loved Verona during the summer. But she couldn’t miss out on Elisabetta’s party. Ava and Nico wouldn’t forgive her.

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