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The dining car was almost empty when she walked in – an elderly couple at the far end, two businessmen deep in conversation at the first table and another reading a newspaper. Rachel took a deep breath, summoned up her courage and marched to a seat at a table for two, half way along the carriage. She wasn’t used to eating alone. In fact, she wasn’t used to formal dining at all, but this rail journey through France to Italy was the overture to a big adventure and she meant to do it in style.
She looked up from the menu with a start when she sensed someone standing next to her. Tall, elegantly dressed, with thick dark hair turning steel-grey at the temples, his hand indicated the vacant place opposite hers. Beautiful leather shoes.
He spoke in French.
‘I’m sorry, I don’t speak French.’
‘Ah, Inglese. Pardon me, Signorina. I ask if I might join you.’ He smiled and blood rushed to Rachel’s cheeks.
‘I suppose so,’ she mumbled, nervous.
‘A beautiful woman should not dine alone.’
His eyes were deep brown, as intense as espresso.
He offered his hand. ‘Salvatore Monterosso.’ He raised an eyebrow.
‘Er… I’m Rachel Radcliffe.’
‘And where are you heading Signorina Rachel?’
‘To Milan. I have a job there. Teaching English.’
He smiled again and she felt a shiver deep inside. She wasn’t sure whether she should be afraid or excited, then decided she was both.
As if reading her mind, the stranger leaned forward and said, ‘You are wondering if I make a habit of talking to young women on trains?’
She said nothing.
‘I can promise you I don’t. But there is a first time for everything.’ He studied her, his expression thoughtful. Jerking his head towards the lone businessman reading Le Figaro at the end of the carriage, he added, ‘Usually that would be me. My head buried in the financial pages – in my case Il Corriere della Sera.’ He gave her another winning smile.
The waiter approached and Monterosso spoke rapidly to him in French. The man nodded and disappeared.
‘What did you tell him? I haven’t ordered yet.’
‘I told him you are my guest and I have ordered for both of us.’
Rachel felt a pulse of annoyance. How presumptuous. Yet part of her was secretly thrilled. It was the kind of thing that happened to women in books and films but never to someone like her.
‘Tell me about yourself, Rachel. Your new job? Why Milano?’
‘I studied Physics at university. Graduated a month ago. Before I settle into a proper job using my degree, I want to see something of the world. Try something different.’
‘And what might a proper job in Physics be?’
‘I don’t really want to think about that yet. Teaching maybe. Data analysis. Or an MSc and then work in a more specialised field. But I need a break first.’
‘So, you are a very clever woman. Mi piace molto le donne intelligente. I adore clever women.’
His deep brown eyes gazed into hers and Rachel’s stomach flipped. How old was he? Much older than her. Then she told herself he was only being courteous. She shouldn’t jump to the conclusion he had an ulterior motive.
Again, that uncanny ability to read her mind. ‘You are thinking perhaps I am a man in search of an… adventure?’ His smile was disarming. ‘That I make a habit of seducing young women?’
She swallowed, wishing now she hadn’t let him join her. ‘It’s hard not to reach that conclusion.’
He laughed and gave his head a little shake, wagging a finger. ‘Then you would be quite wrong, Signorina Rachel. I am a happily married man.’
Rachel’s breath released.
He looked at her again, intensely. ‘But in this case, you are partly correct.’ He paused as the waiter arrived and served them champagne. Touching his glass against hers, he said, ‘I would like very much to seduce you, dear Rachel, and I intend to make that my mission.’
The champagne shot up her nose and she spluttered into her napkin.
He gave a little shrug. ‘You are a beautiful woman and I want to make love to you. In fact I won’t rest until I have done so. Many times.’ He took another sip of champagne, his eyes locked on hers, as the waiter served their entrées.
Rachel started to stand up. Salvatore laid a hand on hers and she sat down again. ‘Please, permit me to finish.’
As if her body were paralysed, she waited, unable to escape the intensity of his gaze.
‘I want you as my amante - my lover.’
Rachel gasped, horrified. ‘You mean your mistress? You don’t even know me.’
He closed his eyes, shaking his head. ‘Mistress is an ugly word. I prefer lover.’
Reaching across the table, he touched her hand again and a shock wave ran through her. Out of her depth, she didn’t know what to say.
‘Look at me, Rachel.’
She lifted her eyes.
‘You think this is improper? Very un-English?’
‘And yet you want me, too? Don’t look away.’
She nodded, helpless.
‘See? Not so hard. My dear Rachel, forget the blushing English reserve, and trust your own feelings.’ He took her hand again, stroking it. ‘I’m a wealthy man. I am married and have a family. I will never leave them. Nor will I tell you anything else about myself. You will not know my address, my telephone number, the nature of my business.’ He continued to stroke her hand. ‘Instead, I propose we meet every week to make love, to drink fine wine and dine together. He handed her a hotel key card. ‘This hotel room, every Thursday at seven. You may remain for the night after I return to my wife and family. We will enjoy each other’s company and I will make love to you as you have never been made love to before.’ He smiled again.
‘But…we don’t even know each other.’
‘That is the point. It will be a glorious adventure.’
‘Will never know.’
Rachel turned and gazed at the French countryside as the train rushed along. The sun was setting behind distant hills, washing the sky in orange light and tingeing the clouds the palest of rose. Her stomach churned. She was hungry but too disturbed to eat the paté in front of her.
Salvatore took her hand and brushed his lips over it. ‘I will leave you now to enjoy your meal and think about what I have said. ‘I promise I will show you pleasures you have never known before. Then, when you return to England to pursue your studies – as I hope you will – you are too clever to waste your life teaching bored businessmen English – you will have only beautiful memories to cherish.’
He rose. ‘Thursday evening. Seven p.m. The suite is molto elegante – the finest in Milano.’
Turning away, he walked down the car and disappeared through the connecting door.
Rachel looked around. Had any passengers witnessed what had happened? Had anyone overheard? But the Il Figaro-reading businessman had gone, the elderly pair were drinking coffee and looking out at the darkening landscape, and there were two more tables of couples absorbed in conversation. The waiter presented her with a grilled trout. He showed no surprise at the disappearance of her dining companion.
As Rachel began to eat, she was surprised her appetite was restored. What had just happened? Had she imagined it? But there on the white linen tablecloth was the keycard to the hotel suite.
Out of the blue she remembered reading one of her mother’s books – Erica Jong’s Fear of Flying. Was she being offered the chance to experience the mythical ‘zipless f*ck’?
Rachel’s sexual experience consisted of one long-term relationship at university that had ended badly, and a drunken retaliatory one-night-stand, after discovering her boyfriend’s infidelity. She had abhorred the behaviour of her more promiscuous friends – yet had been secretly jealous of their capacity for experimentation. Jack’s unfaithfulness had made her question her own desirability and, more significantly, whether she was perhaps not good enough in bed.
Pocketing the room card, she decided that she was going to turn up at that hotel.
The hotel was the kind of place Rachel would normally walk past on the street, noticing the men and women coming and going in beautiful clothes, carrying Gucci and Ferragamo bags. She never dreamed of crossing the threshold.
Her accommodation in Milan was a cramped apartment shared with two other teachers from the language school, on an ugly housing estate at the outer reaches of the Metropolitano. That night, Rachel hadn’t told them where she was going, saying she was staying with a friend.
Now, crossing the marbled lobby to the bank of lifts, Rachel was consumed with nerves. She felt out of place in her skinny jeans and tee-shirt in this sea of designer gorgeousness. But no one gave her a second glance. The lift doors opened and she stepped inside, grateful to be the only occupant. She pressed the button for the eleventh floor.
The long wide corridor stretched in front of her, broken by marble-topped console tables holding arrangements of exotic flowers. The atmosphere oozed luxury and expense. She stopped at room 1117. Gulping air into her lungs, she inserted the key card. The green light came on and she entered, heart pounding.
At first she thought he wasn’t there, then she felt a touch on her arm and swung around. Salvatore was wearing a white silk bathrobe, his deep brown eyes gazing into hers.
‘You came, my dear Rachel. I am so happy you did.’
‘You thought I wouldn’t?’
He smiled. ‘Perhaps a little doubt. I thought perhaps you’d had second thoughts. That you are not the kind of girl who makes a habit of making love with strangers. That’s one of the reasons I like you so much.’ He stroked her hair. She shivered.
‘I wanted to thank you for dinner. And to give you back the key. Yes, this isn’t something I can do.’ She felt herself shaking. ‘I can’t stay.’
He smiled again. ‘Oh, you will stay, amore. And yes, this is something you can definitely do.’ Without waiting for her to answer, he pulled her into his arms and kissed her. She was lost.
Later that night, after Salvatore had left, Rachel stretched out inside the enormous marble bath, luxuriating in the lavish bubbles and intoxicating scent. It had been an evening like no other she had experienced. Just thinking about what they had done made her shiver, despite the warmth of the bath.
Salvatore had been assiduous in ensuring that she took pleasure from everything he did. Tender and patient, he had taken her to heights she had never imagined. After making love, they had eaten the cold supper delivered by room service, washed down with a chilled wine, before he carried her back to the bed.
In between their love-making, they talked. Not of personal details – his embargo on discussion of his wife, family and business remained solid. But they discussed films, music and art. Rachel told him she was the younger of two sisters, that her mother had died the previous year, and that her father had already remarried. He listened to her avidly.
The guilt Rachel had felt on entering into this unusual arrangement soon left her, as the weekly trysts with Salvatore became part of the fabric of her life. In the hours before she was due to meet him – always in that same hotel suite near the Quadrilatro – she was consumed with nervous anticipation, daydreaming about the pleasures that awaited her. In the hours after he left her, she would lie in the enormous bed, longing for him to be here beside her, wishing that for once, she might fall asleep in his arms.
As weeks turned into months, Rachel began to build a life of her own in Milan. None of her friends had even the smallest clue about the secret world inside room 1117. Yet increasingly, Rachel felt her life was lacking a real purpose. She remembered Salvatore’s words to her on the train – that she could do better than teaching Italian to bored businessmen. That meant she was also worth more than being the mistress of a wealthy Milanese.
Rachel strode across the hotel lobby towards the lifts. As she pressed the button, a voice behind her said, ‘May I help you?’
Jumping, she turned to see a uniformed concierge staring at her, his expression unsmiling. She waved her key card at him.
With an outstretched hand he took the card from her. ‘Please follow me, Signora.’ Gesturing with a sweep of his hand, he ushered her towards a room off the main lobby.
The hotel manager was seated behind a large mahogany desk. He looked up and signalled Rachel to sit.
‘What’s happening?’ she asked. ‘Why am I here? I am visiting Signor Monterosso.’
‘There is no Signor Monterosso.’ The man’s eyes were cold, and his expression bordered on contempt. ‘It seems you have been misled.’
‘But he’s a regular customer of the hotel. A wealthy businessman.’
‘And you are his… putana?’
Outraged, Rachel jumped up from her seat. How dare he call her a whore.
‘Perhaps that was harsh. Shall we settle on amante? His lover?’
Saying nothing, she lowered her eyes, humiliated.
‘I have some news for you, Signora. Your friend is Luigi Bono, the brother of my under-manager. Or rather, former under-manager. He was dismissed this afternoon. Bono himself is a concierge at the Excelsior. He too is seeking alternative employment.’
‘It seems you have been duped. I imagine he led you to believe he was a man of some importance? You have apparently been visiting this hotel and enjoying our hospitality for a long time. Una bella truffa - a nice scam between the two brothers. Each looking out for the other. I imagine Alfonso enjoyed a similar arrangement with his mistress at the Excelsior.’
‘I had no idea.’ Rachel was consumed with shame.
He fixed his eyes on her. ‘No, I can see you hadn’t. I will press no charges against you. I don’t like a scandal.’ He rose. ‘Never try to enter this establishment again, Signora. Now, get out.’
Rachel’s heart pounded against her ribcage as she left the hotel. At first she thought she was going to cry, then, as she went down the marble steps into the busy street, she began to smile.
Walking towards the Metropolitano, she decided there was no such thing as a ‘zipless f*ck’. Everything carries consequences.
Her Milanese adventure was over. It was time she went home and got her physics text books out of storage.
© Clare Flynn
Did you guess the song title?
Strangers In The Night Frank Sinatra
Strangers In The Night Frank Sinatra
Clare Flynn is the author of ten historical novels and a collection of short stories, both historical and contemporary. She lives on the Sussex coast.
Her latest novel, Storms Gather Between Us was published by Canelo in June 2019. Her next book, The Pearl of Penang, set in wartime Malaya, was published on December 5th 2019
|Reviewed by Discovering Diamonds|
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