Exotically beautiful but desperately unhappy, Alba lives on a houseboat on the Thames, where she enjoys a life of leisure and entertains an endless and unfulfilling succession of lovers. Though irresistible to men, her striking Mediterranean features and fiery temper distance her from her father and stepmother's aristocratic and highly traditional English family.
When Alba discovers a portrait of her dead mother, Valentina -- a mysterious Italian beauty she'd hardly known, whose story has been kept from her by her still grieving father -- she is instantly shaken from complacency. Determined to learn the truth about Valentina, Alba returns to the olive groves of the Amalfi coast of Italy, to her mother's tiny village of Incantellaria, ignoring the friends and family who urge her to leave the past alone. Once there, Alba discovers cultural roots and the love of a new family, and begins to uncover wartime secrets protected for decades. Alba's quest to understand her mother's identity takes her beyond anything she could have imagined, revealing a mysterious tale of desperation, decadence, deception, murder, and betrayal involving partisans and Nazis, peasants and counts. Alba's journey leads her not only to the truth of her family's hidden past but to the possibility of love and happiness in her own future.
Last Voyage of the Valentina is a sweeping, romantic story that makes for a great escape for any booklover.
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Santa Montefiore is the internationally bestselling author of several novels, including The French Gardener and The Last Voyage of the Valentina. She lives in London with her husband, historian Simon Sebag-Montefiore, and their two children. Visit her website at SantaMontefioreAuthor.com.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
He's enjoying the attentions of that young man again," said Viv, standing on the deck of her houseboat. Although it was a balmy spring evening, she pulled her tasseled shawl about her shoulders and took a long drag of her cigarette.
"Not spying again, darling!" said Fitz with a wry smile.
"One can't help noticing the comings and goings of that girl's lovers." Viv narrowed her hooded eyes and inhaled through dilated nostrils.
"Anyone would think you were jealous," Fitz commented, grimacing as he took a sip of cheap French wine. In all the years he had been Viv's friend and agent she had never once bought a bottle of good wine.
"I'm a writer. It's my business to be curious about people. Alba's engaging. She's a very selfish creature, but one can't help being drawn to her. The ubiquitous moth to the flame. Though, in my case, not a moth at all but a rather beautifully dressed butterfly." She wandered across the deck and draped herself over a chair, spreading her blue and pink caftan about her like silken wings. "Still, I enjoy her life. It'll do for a book one day, when we're no longer friends. I think Alba's like that. She enjoys people, then moves on. In our case, it shall be I who moves on. By then, the dramas of her life will no longer entertain me and, besides, I'll have grown bored of the Thames too. My old bones will ache from the damp, and the creaking and bumping will keep me up at night. Then I shall buy a small château in France and retire to obscurity, fame having become a bore too." She sucked in her cheeks and grinned at Fitz. But Fitz was no longer listening, although it was his job to.
"Do you think they pay for it?" he said, putting his hands on the railing and looking down into the muddy water of the Thames. Beside him, Sprout, his old springer spaniel, lay sleeping on a blanket.
"Certainly not!" she retorted. "Her father owns the boat. She's not having to fork out twelve pounds a week in rent, I assure you."
"Then she's simply liberated."
"Just like everyone else of her generation. Following the herd. It bores me. I was before my time, Fitzroy. I took lovers and smoked cannabis long before the Albas of this world knew of the existence of either. Now I prefer bog standard Silva Thins and celibacy. I'm fifty, too old to be a slave to fashion. It's all so frivolous and childish. Better to set my mind on higher things. You may be a good ten years younger than me, Fitzroy, but I can tell the world of fashion bores you too."
"I don't think Alba would bore me."
"But you, my dear, would bore her, eventually. You might think you're a swaggering Lothario, Fitzroy, but you'd meet your match in Alba. She isn't like other girls. I'm not saying you'd have trouble bedding her, but keeping her, now that's a very different story. She likes variety. Her lovers don't last long. I've seen them come and go. It's always the same, they skip up the gangplank; then, when it's all over, they plod off like ill-treated mongrels. She'd have you for dinner then spit you out like a chicken bone, and that would be a shock, wouldn't it, darling? I bet no one's ever done that to you before. It's called karma. What goes around, comes around. Pay you back for breaking so many hearts. Anyway, at your age, you should be looking for your third wife, not a transitory thrill. You should be settling down. Set your heart on one woman and keep it there. She's fiery because she's half Italian."
"Ah, that explains the dark hair and honey skin."
Viv looked at him askance and her thin lips extended into an even thinner smile.
"But those very pale eyes, strange..." He sighed, no longer noticing the taste of cheap wine.
"Her mother was Italian. She died when Alba was born. In a car crash, I think. Has a horrid stepmother and a bore for a father. Navy, you know. Still there, the old fossil. Has had the same desk job since the war, I suspect. Commutes every day, very dreary. Captain Thomas Arbuckle, and he's definitely a Thomas and not a Tommy. Not like you, who are more of a Fitz than a Fitzroy, though I do love the name Fitzroy and shall continue to use it regardless. No wonder Alba rebelled."
"Her father might be a bore, but he's a rich bore." Fitz ran his eyes over the shiny wooden houseboat that gently rocked from the motion of the tide. Or from Alba's lovemaking. The thought made his stomach cramp competitively.
"Money doesn't bring happiness. You should know that, Fitzroy."
Fitz stared into his glass a moment, reflecting on his own fortune that had brought him only avaricious wives and expensive divorces.
"Does she live alone?"
"She used to live with one of her half sisters, but it didn't work out. I can't imagine the girl's easy to live with, God bless her. The trouble with you, Fitzroy, is that you fall in love much too easily. If you could keep control of your heart, life would be a lot simpler for you. You could just bed her and get her out of your system. Ah, about time too! You're late!" she exclaimed as her nephew Wilfrid hurried down the pontoon with his girlfriend Georgia in tow, full of apologies. Viv could be quite fearsome when they showed up late for bridge.
The Valentina was a houseboat unlike any other on Cheyne Walk. The curve of the prow was pretty, upturned, coy as if she were trying to contain a knowing smile. The house itself was painted blue and white with round windows and a balcony where pots spilled over with flowers in springtime and leaks let in the rain during the winter months. Like a face that betrays the life it has lived, so the eccentric dip in the line of the roof and the charming slope of the bow, like a rather imperious nose, revealed that perhaps she had lived many lives. The overriding characteristic of the Valentina, therefore, was her mystery. Like a grande dame who would never be seen without her makeup, the Valentina would not reveal what lay beneath her paint. Her mistress, however, loved her not for her unusual features, or her charm or indeed her uniqueness. Alba Arbuckle loved her boat for a very different reason.
"God, Alba, you're beautiful!" Rupert sighed, burying his face in her softly perfumed neck. "You taste of sugared almonds." Alba giggled, thinking him absurd, but unable to resist the sensation of his bristles that scratched and tickled and his hand that had already found its way past her blue suede clog boots and up her Mary Quant skirt. She wriggled with pleasure and lifted her chin.
"Don't talk, you fool. Kiss me."
This he did, determined to please her. He was heartened that she had suddenly come alive in his arms after a sulky supper in Chelsea. He pressed his lips to hers, relieved that as long as he entertained her tongue she couldn't use it to abuse him. Alba had a way of saying the most hurtful things through the sweetest, most beguiling, smile. And yet, those pale gray eyes of hers, like a moor on a misty winter morning, aroused a strange kind of pity that was disarming. Drew a man in. Made him yearn to protect her. To love her was easy, to keep her unlikely. But along with the other hopefuls who walked the well-trodden deck of the Valentina, he couldn't help but try.
Alba opened her eyes as he unbuttoned her blouse and took a nipple in his mouth. She looked up through the skylight to wispy pink clouds and the first twinkle of a star. Overwhelmed by the unexpected beauty of the dying day she momentarily let down her guard and her spirit was at once filled with sadness. It flooded her being and brought tears to those pale gray eyes, tears that stung. Her loneliness gnawed and ached, and nothing seemed to cure it. Appalled by the ill timing of such weakness she wound her legs around her lover and rolled over so that she sat on top, kissing and biting and clawing him like a wild cat. Rupert was stunned but more excited than ever. He eagerly ran his hands up her naked thighs to discover she wore no pants. Her buttocks lay smooth and exposed for him to caress with impatient fingers. Then he was inside her and she was riding him vigorously, as if aware only of the pleasure and not of the man who was providing it. Rupert gazed upon her in awe, longing to put his mouth to her lips that were slightly parted and bruised. She looked wanton and yet, in spite of her lack of inhibition, she possessed a vulnerability that made him yearn to hold her close.
Soon Rupert's thoughts were lost in the excitement of their lovemaking. He closed his eyes and surrendered to his desire, no longer lucid enough to contemplate her lovely face. They writhed and rolled over the piles of discarded clothes on the bed until they exploded onto the floor with a thud, out of breath and laughing. She looked at his surprised face with eyes that shone and said with a throaty chuckle, "What did you expect? The Virgin Mary?"
"That was wonderful. You're an angel," he sighed, kissing her forehead. She raised her eyebrows and laughed at him.
"I do think you're absurd, Rupert. God would throw me out of Heaven for misbehaving."
"Then that is not the Heaven for me."
Suddenly her attention was diverted by a brown scroll of paper that had been dislodged from between the wooden slats under the bed. She couldn't reach from where she was lying, so she pushed Rupert away and crawled around to the other side. She stretched her arm beneath the bed.
"What is it?" he asked, blinking at her through a postcoital daze.
"I don't know," she replied. As she stood up, she grabbed her cigarette packet and lighter from the bedside table and threw them at him. "Light me one, will you?" Then she sat on the edge of the bed and slowly unfurled the scroll of paper.
Rupert didn't smoke. In fact, he loathed cigarettes, but not wanting to appear gauche, he did as she asked, throwing himself onto the bed beside her and running an appreciative hand down her back. She stiffened. Without looking at him she said, "I've enjoyed you, Rupert. But now I want to be alone."
"What is it?" he asked, astounded that she could suddenly turn so cold.
"I said, I want to be alone." For a moment he was unsure how to react. No woman had ever treated...
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