P.S. Come to Italy
Can you fall in love with someone you’ve never met? When Belle started writing to Enrico, she certainly wasn’t looking to fall in love! Everything about his life in southern Italy is so different to hers – but somehow, across half the world, a magical friendship forms. And so, when Enrico signs off one of his messages, P.S. Come to Italy, Belle decides to follow her heart! A stunning new love story from internationally bestselling author Nicky Pellegrino
Belle didn’t know what she had expected, but it wasn’t this. A grand palazzo with dark green shutters, time-worn stone walls and a doorway flanked by ornate columns, it was so imposing that for a moment she hesitated. Had coming here been a mistake? Was she going to regret being so impulsive?
And then she saw them standing in the vestibule, the whole family waiting to greet her. There was Enrico, his face so familiar. Behind him the others, his two sons and their wives sizing her up, and an older woman, Enrico’s mother, holding onto his arm. Belle didn’t think any one of them looked particularly pleased to meet her.
‘Hello,’ she said, dropping her battered suitcase on the marble floor, unsure whether she was meant to shake hands or kiss them.
‘Welcome, welcome.’ At least Enrico was smiling. He stepped towards Belle, touching his cheeks to hers, and briefly she was aware that his skin was smooth and his cologne woodsy and sophisticated. ‘Such a long journey, all those thousands of kilometres, you must be very tired.’
‘I am a little jet-lagged,’ she agreed, although the truth was, she felt shattered. Hours and hours ago Belle had left behind a grey Auckland day. Since then, she had watched a lot of forgettable movies on a small seat-back screen and eaten too much horrible plane food, because there was nothing else to do. Now her ankles were swollen, her hair lank and stomach bloated.
‘New Zealand is so far away,’ remarked one of the wives, politely. She was dark-haired, plump-cheeked and very pretty, wearing a hand-embroidered smocked dress that showed off her
The other young woman was dark-haired and lovely too, but her face was more angular and the skin beneath her eyes puckered with tiredness. One hand rested on the mound of her belly, and Belle tried to remember when Enrico had said his first grandchild was due.
‘We were planning to eat lunch in the garden,’ he told her, now.
Belle ought to have spent a couple of nights in Rome and then she might have arrived rested and refreshed. She was aware that Enrico’s sons were staring at her stony-faced and his mother’s frown wasn’t shifting. Clearly, she hadn’t made the best first impression.
‘Lunch would be lovely,’ she said, dismissing any thoughts of a long shower and a lie-down.
Enrico made the introductions, although Belle had already seen photographs so recognised the moody-looking elder son as Gianni with his pale and pregnant wife Katarina beside him. The other son Pietro had curlier hair and a couple of African woven friendship bracelets tied round one slender wrist. He was recently married to the beautiful Perla. And then there was Enrico’s mother, the old Signora. Belle still wasn’t sure what she was meant to call her, even once the introductions were over, and they were leading her down a long corridor, past a vaulted dining area and a room full of antique chairs and marble statuary.
Then they were on the terrace, which led down to a small formal garden, and down again to a rectangle of swimming pool, a loggia with more ornate columns, and a low limestone wall with a view of the red-earthed olive groves spreading out towards the sea.
‘How long have you lived in this house?’ Belle asked Enrico, taking a seat at a table shaded by the loggia.
‘I was born here,’ he told her. ‘It has been in my family for a long time, passed down from eldest son to eldest son, as is traditional.’
‘I didn’t realise it was so … magnificent.’
Whenever they had chatted, on those lengthy Zoom calls, Enrico had been in his home office. It hadn’t seemed particularly fancy, just a small room, almost an alcove. Now Belle realised he must have another, much larger office wherever his business was based. It had never occurred to her that Enrico might be this wealthy.
Looking at him, seated at the head of his table, pouring out glasses of Prosecco, Belle realised what she knew about this man was that he made her laugh and felt like a friend, but still she didn’t know him very well at all.
He was taller than she had expected, leaner too. Before today Belle had only ever seen him on a computer screen, mostly a head and shoulders view. Now she noticed other things. The way he moved, even his stance, signalled self-assurance. And as he passed her a glass of Prosecco, she observed that his fingers were long and tanned, the nails neatly manicured.
‘We must make a toast,’ he declared, once everyone had a drink. ‘To Belle; we are so glad you have come to Italy and hope your stay here will be a very happy one.’
They all raised their glasses, but Perla was the only one that spoke. ‘To Belle,’ she echoed sweetly. ‘Welcome.’
‘Thank you, I’m very pleased to be here,’ replied Belle, still feeling dazed, although whether by the place or the jet lag, she wasn’t certain.
Everyone was staring, waiting for her to say something more. The old Signora whose eyes were set so deep in the fleshy folds of her face they looked like currants in a bun, the handsome sons, and the younger women, one smiling and the other even paler now if possible.
‘This is very beautiful.’ Belle touched a hand to the ivory linen cloth that was covering the table. ‘One of your designs?’
‘Yes, yes.’ Enrico smiled at her. ‘And the dress Perla is wearing, and my shirt, and Mamma’s wrap all artisan linen products from Casa di Ginaro. I sent you something of ours, didn’t I?’
‘Napkins,’ Belle reminded him. They had arrived beautifully wrapped, eight white linen napkins with a subtle sheen of hand-embroidery and she had put them away in a drawer and not bothered taking them out again. Belle’s table was covered in mismatched vintage china and jam jars full of foraged flowers. She liked to gather people around it for noisy, messy dinners – pulling apart roast chicken with fingers, spilling red wine, scattering crumbs. The napkins were a gift from Enrico so of course she kept them, but they weren’t the kind of thing that Belle could imagine ever using.
She ought to have paid more attention to those napkins, to what they were telling her. They said that Enrico was a man who did things properly, not a person who casually tore off squares from a kitchen roll for his friends to dab their sticky mouths and hands with, not like Belle at all.
‘Beautiful linen napkins,’ she added. ‘Embroidered with a crest.’
‘Our family’s crest.’ The old Signora spoke, her currant-bun eyes fixed on Belle. ‘It is historic.’
‘You have your own crest.’ Belle was impressed, as it seemed like she was meant to be.
‘Many families do,’ said Enrico, with a shrug. ‘It is not so unusual.’ Lunch was brought out by a woman wearing an apron. The portions were small but it all looked delicious. A swirl of spaghetti coated in a buttery tomato sauce and a puddle of jammy onions. Citrussy shaved fennel served with sweet-fleshed langoustines. Soft, dimpled bread rolls dusted with flour. Belle’s mouth watered but she ate carefully. It was difficult to avoid splattering sauce all over the perfect linen cloth and almost certainly not OK to wipe a crust of bread around her plate to soak up every last delicious drop like she always did at home.
‘My son says you are in the art world,’ the old Signora remarked.
‘I have a little gallery,’ Belle told her.
‘In the city?’
‘No, it’s in the seaside settlement where I live. Just an annexe of the house really, and I sell paintings, pottery, crafts, that sort of thing.’
‘You do well? It is successful?’
‘There are good times and bad, like any business.’ Belle wasn’t going to pretend otherwise. ‘And it is very small.’
“This family is fortunate that we are very well established,’ the Signora said. ‘Casa di Ginaro was founded by my great- grandmother. She began in a small way, with the smocked. nightgowns that she stitched and hand embroidered herself. Slowly, we have grown.’
Belle had checked out the Casa di Ginaro website, of course, and raised her eyebrows at the prices of the products it sold. Who paid that kind of money for linen clothes and homeware? Still for some reason she had continued to assume that Enrico was just like her, not rich or poor but somewhere in between. In the photographs she had come across there was no chunky gold Rolex on his wrist, no glitter or bling, nothing showy at all. What you noticed about Enrico, in pictures as well as life, was the sparkle in his eyes as he smiled and the traces of boyishness on his face.
She had found a few shots of him at fashion shows surrounded by his family and several images of them posing for magazines.In one Enrico was stretched out on a lounger beside his pool but there was nothing she came across that showed the palazzo’s grand façade. She felt vaguely affronted now that he had turned out to be wealthy, like he had been cheating or lying all along, holding out on her.
This trip was supposed to be the escape she needed, the answer to all her problems. Come to Italy, Enrico had said, and impetuously Belle had agreed. He lived in Ostuni, a dazzling white hilltop town rising up from a plateau of olive trees. In photographs it had wowed her and the descriptions she read did the rest. A labyrinth of alleyways, staircases and arches, houses built on houses, hundreds of years of history.
Now she was here, in this palazzo with this family and a man who seemed almost a stranger. Belle had come to Italy and she was going to have to make the most of it.
When Belle got married to Ari, she always knew there was a chance she would be widowed one day. Not that she thought about it as they posed for wedding photographs in the wind-blown grass on the dunes above the ocean. She was wearing a summery dress and flowers in her fair hair and it was freezing cold because the weather had turned; still she was brimming with joy.
Not everyone was as happy. From the beginning her mother had made it clear that she disapproved of the age difference and throughout the ceremony, every time Belle glanced towards her or her stepfather, she thought that their faces looked pinched. Eventually Belle stopped glancing at them. She was in her mid- forties and Ari twenty years older. Dressed in a short-sleeved white shirt, the greenstone he always wore gleaming at his neck, her groom seemed a man in his prime.
Ari didn’t look his age and never acted it. He went surfing when the waves were wild and galloped his horse down the black sand beach, leaping it over any driftwood in his path. You would have known he was older than her, but not that twenty years divided them. You saw his broad shoulders and strong hands, heard the deep rumble of his voice, you felt his energy; he never seemed frail. Belle had waited a long time for a man like Ari.
The first time she met him was at an exhibition of his paintings. A friend had invited her along; Ari had been her teacher at an adult art class, and the gallery showing his work was putting on a bigger party than normal because this was his final one, the end of a long career.
‘My art has been everything to me but I believe there is more to life and it’s time to experience that now,’ he had said in his short speech. ‘I don’t want to be hidden away on my own in a studio anymore. I want to be out in the world, with people, doing some living.’
Pressed against the back wall, clutching a glass of warm Chardonnay, Belle had gazed at him over the heads of all those people, and thought he was amazing.
The second time she saw him was at a barbecue. Ari had been out surfing and was salty-skinned, his wet hair slicked back from his wide, brown face. Belle didn’t talk to him that time either. Their third meeting was on purpose. Belle couldn’t stop thinking about Ari. She told her friend that she regretted not buying one of his artworks and, since the exhibition was over, the friend shared his contact details and suggested she go out to his studio near the beach at Muriwai. ‘He’s got loads of his old work out there; if there’s something you like he’ll sell it to you. He probably needs the money.’
Ari didn’t remember her from the exhibition or the barbecue. But he said she should come out one Sunday afternoon and have a look through the paintings that were left in his studio.
‘This Sunday?’ Belle asked.
‘If you like.’
‘What time works for you?’ she wondered.
‘Any time,’ Ari told her in his low, bass voice. ‘If I’m not here then the key will be under the mat so let yourself in and put on some coffee. I won’t be far away.’
His house was set in bush, down a short driveway that dipped down from the coast road, a small wooden cottage with a covered veranda and a studio at one side. Belle knocked on the door and called out his name but there was no reply so she found the key beneath the mat and let herself in.
There was art everywhere, paintings propped next to piles of books, shelves of glassware and pottery bowls, a collection of woven flax bags on one wall, a half-finished mural covering the other. Belle stood there, taking it all in, more interested in Ari than ever.
He had been out riding and was dressed in dusty jeans, a tan-coloured dog at his heels. ‘Kia ora,’ he said, striding in. ‘You haven’t put the coffee on.’
‘I was just looking around … being nosey really,’ she admitted. Ari shrugged. ‘It’s all here to be looked at.’
In this small space, so close to him, Belle felt giddy as a teenager; she hoped it wasn’t obvious.
‘Have you really stopped painting?’ she asked, as he moved around his kitchen, making coffee and opening a packet of ginger biscuits.
‘I really have,’ said Ari.
‘And you don’t miss it?’
‘Not really, it just feels strange because I never imagined stopping but then one day I didn’t want to anymore, like something in me had changed. I looked at my paints, and my brushes and a blank canvas and it wasn’t there, whatever made those paintings; I had lost it.’
‘It sounds devastating,’ said Belle. All her life she had been a creative person in search of something she was really good at. She couldn’t draw or paint, her pottery was wobbly, her photographs weren’t special, even the mosaics she made weren’t amazing. To have actual talent and then lose it; she couldn’t imagine.
‘There’s a lot more time to ride my horse now,’ Ari told her. ‘To surf, see friends, listen to music, or do nothing at all. It’s not so bad.’
Coffee in one hand, ginger biscuit in the other, he took her through to his studio. It was stacked full of paintings a few earlier ones he had done of native birds, the portraits he was famous for and some newer stormy beach scenes.
‘I’m not sure how I’ll choose just one from all these,’ said Belle.
‘There’s no rush,’ he told her. ‘Have a look round then go away and think about it. If there’s something you like then you should come back again and visit it. Buying a painting, it’s like a relationship; if you make the right choice, you’ll be together for a long time.’
Belle loved his work, especially the seascapes that were abstract and saturated in colour. The one she was most drawn to was a smaller canvas, unframed and balanced on an easel. She stood there for a while, staring at it, knowing it was the right choice, but needing a reason to come back.
‘No problem,’ said Ari. ‘Just let yourself in, if I’m not here. You know where the key is.’
So, Belle came back the following Sunday, and the Sunday after that, and then one final Sunday bringing a picnic they ate together beside a stream in the forest that stretched between his house and the ocean. By then she was absolutely sure it wasn’t one of Ari’s paintings that she wanted a relationship with. And seeing the smile spread across his face every time he set eyes on her gave Belle a reason to hope that he felt much the same way.
Right from the beginning there was an easiness between them. The more they got to know each other, the easier it felt. Sitting in the long grass, listening to the rush of water below and birdsong above, Belle questioned Ari about his life. She wanted to learn everything about him, to catch up on the years he had lived through before they met, and to do it as quickly as possible.
‘You’re not married?’ she asked, because that was what she most wanted to know.
‘Used to be,’ he told her, leaning back on the picnic rug, hands behind his head and bare feet in the grass. ‘She went to Australia to see her family and didn’t come back.’
Belle didn’t see how anyone could leave a man like him. When she said so, Ari only shrugged.
‘Maybe I wasn’t always so great to her. Artists can be difficult to live with. If our work isn’t going well then nothing is. She put up with years of that. Probably she should have left me much sooner.’
‘You’re not an artist anymore,’ Belle observed. ‘So does that mean you’re not as difficult to live with?’
‘I hope so. You’d need to stick around to find out.’
‘Would you like me to stick around?’ she asked, staring away from him, towards a strand of silver birch, daring to ask the question.
Ari waited for a few moments before replying, then said in his soft, low voice, ‘Hell yes.’
Belle leaned down and kissed him for the first time, softly and briefly. As she pulled away he smiled. ‘Sunday girl,’ he said. ‘If I was still making paintings then your face would inspire me.’
Then his arms were around her and his lips were on hers. And to Belle it seemed that he had been waiting for her, just like she had been hoping for him.
She didn’t drive back to the city that night, never really lived there again, and before long she had given up the apartment she was renting and moved in with Ari. He was bigger and bolder than any other man who had passed through her life, somehow more solid too. Getting to know him filled her mind and her days.
‘Look at you,’ she said, flicking through an old photo album she had found on a high shelf in the spare room, and coming across a faded shot of him with his cousins at the beach. He was stripped to the waist, the greenstone he still wore hanging round his neck, holding up a fish he had caught and grinning broadly.
‘I thought I was Christmas,’ he said, shaking his head at it. ‘I was so full of myself back then.’
Belle smoothed the curled edges of the photo with her finger. Ari had aged, but he was still recognisably this man, a softer and mellower version.
‘We met at the right time then,’ she said. ‘When we were ready for each other.’
‘Yep, I reckon. We found each other just at the right moment.’
Just like her mother, a lot of people couldn’t get past the age difference, as if it was the one thing that mattered. But so what if their musical tastes were poles apart and they grew up watching different movies? There was nobody else Belle would rather spend time with, and Ari felt the same.
They changed each other’s lives. Belle had never known a man as kind as Ari, who rescued fledgling birds and released spiders he found in the house. To live with that kindness day after day made her feel more settled. And she filled the spaces in his life left vacant when art had left him.
It was Ari who encouraged her to open the gallery in the annexe. Belle had been working as a props buyer in the film industry but things were pretty quiet and there hadn’t been a job in a while. If one did come along it would mean long hours and maybe working away from home. Belle didn’t want to do anything that would take her too far away from Ari. This seemed the right time for a change; besides, she liked the idea of having her own gallery.
She began by selling off the remainder of Ari’s paintings, and as the space emptied, she filled it up again, first with work from his old pupils and friends, later with pieces by local craftspeople. A woman who had built a mansion on the cliff-top commissioned Belle to source a series of artworks, and it seemed like she had left the film industry behind for good, just as she had her life in the city.
Sometimes Ari talked about painting. He would trace the planes of her face with his fingers, or run his hands along the length of her body and his voice would sound wistful. ‘If only you’d come along a bit sooner,’ he told her. ‘I’d have painted you over and over.’
‘Is it really too late?’ asked Belle, who would have liked nothing more.
But Ari had cleaned all his brushes and put them away, given his empty canvases to the art school, whitewashed over the mural he never managed to complete and hung other people’s artworks on the plain wall.
‘It’s gone, whatever it was that I had,’ he said, regretfully. ‘Ah well, it was good while it lasted.’
Later Belle wondered whether this had been one of the earliest signs of something going wrong, but no one had realised it at the time. His friends seemed to accept the change in him as part of growing older; everyone retired, didn’t they? And mostly Ari didn’t make a fuss about it. He enjoyed what he could still do. He enjoyed living.
Often when he surfed Belle would sit on the beach and watch, although she was never tempted to run into the waves herself. As for his horse, Ari showed her how to slip on the halter, and
manoeuvre him through the gate and out of the paddock without the rest of the herd crowding her. Even though Belle hadn’t grown up around animals, she did learn to love his tan-coloured dog, Waru, and stopped minding that he slept at the bottom of their bed. Still the big white horse Tama she never felt confident handling.
Ari rode all year round. He surfed in Maukatia Bay even in the winter. He seemed unstoppable. But there must have been signs even then and everyone missed them, even Belle.
To be fair he always did seem to have a sketchy memory. She would find pencilled lists on the backs of old envelopes, things he had to do, people he should call, supplies to pick up the next
time he was in town. He forgot birthdays and anniversaries, but remembered the important things. He remembered how Belle liked her coffee and the fragrance she wore and the flowers she preferred. He never forgot he loved her.
At times his mind did seem to wander, even go astray. He left pans on the hob to boil dry and forgot to fill the car with diesel. He made arrangements to go places and see people then didn’t
turn up. If they couldn’t get hold of him, often they called Belle, and she made excuses. He was a typical creative type, she said, and his mind was always half on something else.
Belle ignored the small signs because she wanted to; she looked the other way on purpose. Until those signs started to get bigger and she couldn’t pretend any longer.
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