Romantic Novel of the Year, 2014
The Orient Express. Luxury. Mystery. Romance.
For one group of passengers settling in to their seats and taking their first sips of champagne, the journey from London to Venice is more than the trip of a lifetime.
A mysterious errand; a promise made to a dying friend; an unexpected proposal; a secret reaching back a lifetime...As the train sweeps on, revelations, confessions and assignations unfold against the most romantic and infamous setting in the world.
Adele Russell didn’t much care for telephones. They were, of course, a necessity. An integral part of daily life. She couldn’t imagine being without one but, unlike many of her friends, she spent as little time on the phone as possible. She liked eye contact, and to be able to read body language, especially when she was doing business. There were so many opportunities to be misunderstood on the phone. It was harder to say the things you really wanted to say, and so much could be left unsaid. And one rarely allowed oneself the luxury of silence: a moment to ruminate before replying. Perhaps this was a hangover from the days when a telephone call was an indulgence, when one kept the imparting of information to a bare minimum, conscious of the cost?
Adele would have preferred to have today’s conversation in person, but she didn’t have that option. She had put the call off for long enough already. Adele had never been a procrastinator, but burying the past had taken such a supreme effort of will at the time, she was reluctant to unearth it again. As she picked up the phone, she told herself she wasn’t being greedy or grabby or grasping. She was simply asking for what was rightly hers. And it wasn’t as if she even wanted it for herself.
Imogen. Her granddaughter’s image flickered in her mind for a moment. She felt a mixture of pride and guilt and worry. If it weren’t for Imogen, she would be leaving Pandora’s box firmly shut, she thought. Or would she? Once again, she reminded herself that she had every right to do what she was doing
Her finger, with its brightly painted nail, hovered over the first zero for a moment before she pressed it. She might be eighty-four, but she still kept herself groomed and glamorous. She heard the long tone of an overseas ring. While she waited for it to be answered, she remembered how many times she had phoned him in secret all those years ago, heart pounding, nose filled with the telephonebox smell of stale smoke, pushing in the money as the pips sounded...
‘Hello?’ The voice was young, female, English. Con- fident.
Adele ran through the possibilities: daughter, lover, second wife, housekeeper...? Wrong number?
‘May I speak to Jack Molloy?’
‘Sure.’ The disinterest in the speaker’s voice told Adele there was no emotional involvement. Probably a housekeeper, then. ‘Who’s calling, please?’
This was just a routine question, not paranoia.
‘Tell him it’s Adele Russell.’ ‘
Will he know what it’s about?’ Again, routine, not interrogative.
‘He will.’ Of this she was certain.
‘One moment.’ Adele heard the speaker put the phone down. Footsteps. Voices.
‘Adele. How very lovely. It’s been a long time.’
He sounded totally unfazed to hear from her. His tone was dry, amused, teasing. As ever. But all those years on, it did not have the same effect it once had. She had thought she was so grown up at the time, but she had been so very far from grown up. Every decision she had made had been immature and selfish, until the very end. That’s when her journey into adulthood had really begun, with the realisation that the world didn’t revolve around Adele Russell and her needs.
‘I had to wait until the time was right,’ she replied.
‘I saw William’s obituary. I’m sorry.’
Three lines in the newspaper. Beloved husband, father and grandfather. No flowers. Donations to his favourite charity. Adele spread her fingers out on the desktop and looked at her wedding and engagement rings. She still wore them. She was still William’s wife.
‘This isn’t a social call,’ she told him, sounding as businesslike as she could. ‘I’m calling about The Inamorata.’
There was a pause while he processed the information.
‘Of course,’ he replied. His tone was light, but she sensed he was crestfallen by her briskness. ‘Well, it’s here. I’ve looked after it for you with the greatest of care. She’s ready for you to collect. Any time you like.’
Adele felt almost deflated. She had been ready for a fight.
‘Good. I shall send somebody over.’
‘Oh.’ There was genuine disappointment in his voice.
‘I was hoping to see you. To take you for dinner at least. You’d like where I am. Giudecca...’
Had he forgotten that she’d already been there? He couldn’t have. Surely.
‘I’m sure I would. But I no longer fly, I’m afraid.’ It was all too much for her these days. The waiting, the discomfort, the inevitable delays. She had seen enough of the world over the years. She didn’t feel the need to see any more of it.
‘There’s always the train. The Orient Express... Remember?’
‘Of course I do.’ Her tone was sharper than she intended. She saw herself, standing on the platform at the Gare de l’Est in Paris, shivering in the yellow linen dress with the matching coat that she’d bought in the rue du Faubourg the day before. Shivering not from the cold, but from anticipation and anxiety and guilt.
Adele felt her throat tighten. The memory was so bittersweet. She had no room for it, what with everything else. She had enough emotions to deal with right now. Selling Bridge House, where her children had been born and brought up, selling the gallery that had been her life, contemplating her future – and Imogen’s: it had all been most unsettling. Necessary, but unsettling.
‘I’ll send someone over in about three weeks,’ she told him. ‘Will that be convenient?’ There was no reply for a moment. Adele wondered if Jack was going to be difficult after all.
There was no paperwork to support her claim. It had just been a promise.
‘Venice in April, Adele. I would be the perfect host. The perfect gentleman. Think about it.’
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'[A] tale packed with warmly-painted characters...Not only does Veronica...keep the intirgue and pace moving, she offers glorious descriptions of the ever-changing landscapes, and particularly of the romantic environs of their final destination - Venice'
Western Morning News (Devon)
'The perfect summer read, full of glamour and intrigue'
'For one group of passengers, there's more at stake than the trip of a lifetime. Compulsive reading'
Woman & Home
'It's a glamorous and absorbing read, a well-written romp with a cast of believable, empathetic characters whom you'll be fascinated by from the start'