Read an Extract from Maestra by L. S. Hilton

Read an Extract from Maestra by L. S. Hilton

I’d always wanted to go to Portofino, but apparently the train didn’t get there, a station clerk told me in Italian, only to a place called Santa Margherita. Then there was a bus, or a taxi. No one had yet asked to see my passport, but I knew I’d have to show it if I wanted to get a hotel. I went over the trail in my head: Judith Rashleigh lands at Nice airport – we had not arrived with James – and a few days later she turns up in Portofino. What was there to connect her with a dead man who for all I knew was still waiting in the lily- scented darkness of the Eden Roc? Nothing, necessarily. I’d have to risk it, or else sleep on the beach.

Santa Margherita looked idyllic, the sort of place I could imagine Audrey Hepburn going on holiday. Tall old houses in yellow and ochre framed a double bay, cutting off at a headland with a marina where super yachts bobbed next to wooden fishing boats. The air smelled of gardenias and ozone, even the children scrambling about on the beach looked chic, in neat linen smocks and shorts, not a hideous sequined T shirt in sight. By the time I had staggered down the grey slate steps from the station to the seafront, I’d really had it with the broken Chanel bag. Portofino could wait. I needed a shower and some fresh clothes. There were several hotels on the first curve of the bay, opposite the public beach and an enclosed private bathing area with red and white striped umbrellas and sun loungers arranged in precise Italian rows. I didn’t think, just turned into the nearest and asked for a room. I spoke English, thinking that it would make me less conspicuous. When the woman at reception asked for my credit card, I said something quick and complex that I didn’t expect her to catch, and cheerfully waved a couple of two-hundred Euro notes. She let me pay in advance for two nights and asked for my passport. I had the same feeling I used to get at the cash point at the end of the month as she logged the details laboriously into a computer, trying to keep a pleasant smile on my face. She reached for a phone. Christ, was she calling the carabinieri? Don’t panic, don’t panic. I could drop my bags and be out of there, the roll of notes safe in my pocket, in seconds. There was a taxi rank just outside, a single Audi idling as the driver smoked out of the window. I had to struggle to keep my breathing even, to resist the urge in my muscles to sprint for it.

It was housekeeping. She was calling housekeeping to check that the room was made up. She handed me an old fashioned key with a heavy brass fob and wished me a pleasant stay. I gestured that I would take up my own bags. Once in the room I dumped my stuff on the bed, opened the window and ignored the “No Smoking” sign. I was surprised to see that the sun was low behind the headland, making purple ribbons of the waves. I had been travelling all day. No, I was on the run. On the lam.

The pale pink curtains bellied in the sea breeze. I started, gasped aloud. A second in which the fabric formed two swollen arms, reaching for me. I froze, my heart banging so loudly I could hear it even over the regular beat of the surf outside. Then I giggled to myself. James might have looked like the Bogeyman, but he was gone. I had 8,470 euros in cash, no job and a dead man behind me in another country. I thought briefly of texting Leanne, decided against it. I’d get a new phone tomorrow, transfer the numbers, drop the old one in the harbour. I dragged on my cigarette and waited for the fear to return. It didn’t. I was in Italy in high summer and for the first time in my entire life, I was free. I didn’t have to worry about money for quite a while. I considered a little celebration, but told myself to calm down. I couldn’t wipe the stupid smirk off my face though. For once, I didn’t need to get laid to feel untouchable.

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