A story of mystery and intrigue set amongst the olive groves in Castrovillari, a town in the foothills of Calabria, Southern Italy.
When Ellie Maddison is sent on a business trip to Southern Italy, she’s reminded why she loves her job – set amongst rolling vineyards and rich olive groves, the beautiful Villa Rosso is the perfect escape from her life back home. But what Ellie isn’t prepared for is the instant connection she feels to the estate’s director Max Johnson, or the secrets they share that are as intertwined as the rambling vines that cover Villa Rosso.
It’s not long before Ellie finds herself entangled in the history of the place, trying to understand the undeniable effect Max is having on her. As their relationship grows, what will Ellie discover about this idyllic villa and those who have walked through its doors?
What started as a simple work trip will change Ellie’s life forever.
Choosing the setting for this story was easy; Italy is one of my favourite travel destinations. The warmth of the people, the beautiful sunshine and the olives … oh, and the pasta and the coffee and the Italian gelateria. What’s not to love? It’s a mix of vibrancy and rural charm – in equal measure. From the mountains, to the beaches – from the swathes of olive groves to the bustling city vibes of Rome, Venice, Florence, Milan …
The heart of Max Jackson‘s story is about one man’s fight to keep a community alive and thriving, despite the effects of the disastrous harvest. With so many people living off the land, as the manager of the local olive oil refinery he comes up with a way of expanding all of their interests to give them a second income. It’s a responsibility he takes very personally.
Two lives. The problem? There is only me.
‘Each life is unique: a series of events on a time line over which you have absolutely no control. You struggle through the low points as best you can and celebrate the highs to remind yourself how good life can be when fate is being kind.
But when I look around at everyone else, it has become clear that my life is a little different. It wasn’t always that way and the question I want to ask the universe is, why me?’
Our Nineteenth Wedding Anniversary
Staring back at me from the crystal ball cradled within my hands is the mirror image of a foetus. Then I realise it isn’t one but two little beings facing each other. The picture is so unexpected that my arms begin to tremble and I almost drop the heavy sphere. Their umbilical cords are still attached and my eyes seek out every little detail, wondering why this is being shown to me. The little faces suddenly become animated and I can see their mouths moving as they talk to each other. Surreal doesn’t even begin to describe the feeling that overcomes me and I barely register that I’m no longer alone, until a familiar voice breaks the silence.
‘Oh, Ellie, you’ve found my crystal ball! It doesn’t work; no one has ever seen anything in it. I was told it belonged to a famous medium, but it’s going to end up being a very expensive ornament.’ My boss and best friend’s voice reflects amusement as our eyes meet. Stunned, I have to compose myself before I can return her casual smile and make light of the moment.
Livvie is completely unaware of the images I’m holding within my hands. As I look away from her I glance down once more. It’s only then that I notice that the two little babies are actually divided, within the globe, by a glass wall. A significant detail I nearly missed, which makes my heart race. I feel as if I’m being given a message, but I have no idea at all what it means. Or maybe I’m a desperate woman in search of peace and normality, looking for answers to a problem which has become almost too much to bear.
I replace the globe on the aged, wooden stand and a sudden chill sends a tremor through me. Livvie is already making her way back out through the house to the patio, where the party is in full swing. I follow in her footsteps, angry with myself and wondering why on earth I’d picked the damned thing up in the first place. Had it been calling out to me?
‘There you are. I’ve missed you.’ Josh wraps a comforting arm around my waist and passes me a cocktail. ‘The ice has already begun to melt; you said you’d only be a minute. You nearly missed your own toast. To us, darling!’
He holds his glass aloft and everyone steps forward to chink glasses.
‘To Josh and Ellie on their nineteenth wedding anniversary. You guys remind us all that true love really does last forever.’
Livvie’s toast is from the heart and maybe for a moment she’s wondering if she’ll ever find a Mr Right. I suspect the thought is only a fleeting one, though.
I look up at Josh, trying hard to stop my face from reflecting the rush of emotions those pale-grey eyes always stir within me. That familiar tousled, brown hair frames the face I know so well, partly obscuring the birthmark on his cheek. I call it his ‘kiss from an angel’ and that always makes him smile.
All I ever longed for was to love and be loved, and when Livvie introduced me to Josh, one tiny moment in time changed my whole life forever. He was, and is, my Prince Charming. I remember it as if it were only yesterday, wondering how nineteen years could have passed by at such a frightening speed and deposited us here. Where did all those days go? And why did my wonderful life have to be turned upside down?
It isn’t just the sunshine and the electric blue sky, but the musical calls of the countryside that reach out to me. A chorus of low-level sounds play like a soft melody in the background. It’s breathtakingly beautiful and I feel like I’m watching a re-run of a favourite film. I could stand here for a long time simply taking in the detail and with each sweep of my eyes noticing something new.
Spinning around I look back at the villa, taking in the rustic beauty of the stonework and the pale orange-red hue of the sun-bleached roof tiles. This is, quite simply, unreal. It’s a little piece of heaven and, so far removed from my daily life that it’s hard to believe this is on the same planet. The sheer scale of the landscape literally steals your breath away. I’m a mere speck, small and insignificant in the grand scheme nature is presenting to me. But rather bizarrely, it doesn’t feel alien in anyway at all. The vastness isn’t overwhelming, but strangely comforting.
I walk back to a cluster of wooden tables surrounding a small fountain and take a seat. As I dive into my bag to extract some sunglasses, I hear a polite cough and look up at the face staring down at me.
‘Mrs Maddison? I’m Max, Max Johnson. Welcome to Villa Rosso.’
I stand, automatically plastering a pleasant smile on my surprised face as recognition kicks in. I know this man, I mean, I’ve met him before. At least I think I have, but there’s nothing similar reflected back at me, only a warm smile. The sort of smile that radiates out from mysteriously deep, hazel eyes. We shake hands. He’s younger than I expected, probably in his early forties and tall. Six foot something that’s for sure, because I feel he’s towering over me.
‘I’m sorry to disturb you. I just wanted you to know that I’m here at your disposal whenever you are ready to begin. Would you like me to fetch you a coffee so you can sit for a while and enjoy the view?’
Although I knew he was British, his tan and elegant demeanour lend an air of cosmopolitan sophistication. I would not have been at all surprised if he had been Italian. He’s hovering politely and I still haven’t answered him…
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