Two Drops of Water - Nicola Rocca - ebook
Opis

Chantal has had a disastrous year. She`s lost her job and her mother, seen her father descend into alcoholism and been cheated on by the love of her life. Down on her luck, opportunity knocks when she starts chatting online to Alfredo, who offers her a job at his B&B in Tuscany.Chantal falls for Alfredo and thinks she has found happiness again, but when she hears there is a maniac on the loose who preys on the girls who work at the B&B, she is thrust into a living nightmare.Hundreds of miles from home and gripped with fear, Chantal must decide who to trust amid a tangled web of rumours, lies and a terrible, horrifying secret...

Ebooka przeczytasz w aplikacjach Legimi na:

Androidzie
iOS
czytnikach certyfikowanych
przez Legimi
Windows
10
Windows
Phone

Liczba stron: 363

Odsłuch ebooka (TTS) dostepny w abonamencie „ebooki+audiobooki bez limitu” w aplikacjach Legimi na:

Androidzie
iOS

NICOLA ROCCA

Facebook:

- Nicola Rocca ‘Pagina Autore’

- Nicola Rocca

enneerreautore@outlook.it

Cover art © Alberto Motta

Cover design © Nicola Rocca and Alberto Motta

Translated by Andrew Fanko

Publisher: Tektime - www.traduzionelibri.it

Any reference to real people or events is purely coincidental.

Literary and artistic property reserved.

All rights reserved.

Summary
PROLOGUE
FEBRUARY 2016
THE DEPARTURE
NOVEMBER 2016
MANY YEARS EARLIER
THE BITTER TRUTH
EIGHT MONTHS PREGNANT

For all those who,

like me,

exist in limbo,

straddling the finest

of fine lines that separates

"You will learn, to your cost,

that on life's great journey

you will encounter many masks, but few faces."

PROLOGUE

The room is in semi-darkness,

the pitch black alleviated only by the dirty yellow light of a street lamp filtering through the window.

Aldo Martelli stares up at the ceiling.

It's an ordeal he has endured for years now - in and out of hospital. No particular illness, but he's ninety years old, and there's no cure for old age; it comes for us all, followed sooner or later by its trusty friend, Death.

His throat seems to be closing up, every breath a laborious wheeze.

All he needs to do is reach out and press his emergency button. A nurse would come running and fit his oxygen mask.

Aldo knows there is little point; it would just delay his last breath for a few more hours. He may as well let himself drift off into that deepest of sleeps that he knows so well. A sleep that has been his livelihood for seventy years.

Martelli Funeral Directors. Two shop windows and a preparation room.

Thinking about it still brings a smile to his face.

So much time has passed. It seems like only yesterday, but now his entire life has flown by.

The weight pressing down on his lungs increases. Aldo may never have experienced his own death, but it is all too familiar to him. He can sense it.

Now that his time has come, he's not afraid. Life has been kind; he can have no complaints. He has never lacked for money or affection.

His thoughts turn to Mina, whom he married before either of them had even turned twenty. Gradually, images of their children come into his mind. Then the grandchildren.

Their faces seem so real he can’t help but smile. Such a beautiful family.

As his vision begins to blur from a lack of oxygen, another memory pops into his head. He thinks of the little white coffin and the secret he has kept for over thirty years.

It was so long ago now, but he can remember it as if it were yesterday.

He still can’t explain why he did it. Could have been greed; could have been a million and one other things.

He deceived an entire town.

He opens his mouth wide in an attempt to steal one final breath, and his eyes relax and fall open.

Just a split second more of suffering, and the secret would go with him to his grave.

FEBRUARY 2016

A mia volta mi fido del mondo

non ti dico le botte che prendo

Non c'è modo di starsene fuori

da ciò che lo rende tremendo e stupendo…

(La linea sottile

CHAPTER 1

03/02/2016

AlfreDario77 20.02

So you're not married and you don’t have a boyfriend?

03/02/2016

SadChantal 20.02

Nope. Neither of the above.

03/02/2016

AlfreDario77 20.03

How come? Must be your choice, right? There can't be a lack of interest. I’ve seen your photo...you're a stunning girl.

03/02/2016

SadChantal 20.04

Girl? I’m not sure I still qualify as a girl at 33:-(

03/02/2016

AlfreDario77 20.04

You may be 33 but you look about 25. And you're still a girl at 25, trust me!

03/02/2016

SadChantal 20.05

If you say so...

03/02/2016

AlfreDario77 20.05

So you still haven’t answered my question. How come a GIRL as hot as you isn’t married or in a relationship?

03/02/2016

SadChantal 20.06

Ermmm....next question please!

03/02/2016

AlfreDario77 20.06

Ooops...have I touched a nerve?

03/02/2016

SadChantal 20.06

I’ll say... And what about you? Married?

03/02/2016

AlfreDario77 20.07

That’s touched a nerve right here too…:-(

03/02/2016

SadChantal 20.07

Wow. Love is definitely NOT in the air around here!

03/02/2016

AlfreDario77 20.07

You're not wrong, SadChantal. Is that why you’re sad? Did your last relationship go tits up?

03/02/2016

SadChantal 20.08

Maybe...But love’s not the only reason. What about you anyway? What’s the deal with your name?

03/02/2016

AlfreDario77 20.09

Just paying a little tribute to my 2 favourite directors: Alfred Hitchcock and Dario Argento.

OK, so apart from love, what's making you sad, gorgeous?

03/02/2016

SadChantal 20.09

I’m just going through a rough time...I’d rather not talk about it.

03/02/2016

AlfreDario77 20.10

Understood. We’ll talk about something else shall we?

03/02/2016

SadChantal 20.10

:-)

03/02/2016

AlfreDario77 20.10

Hmmm...we need something a bit more fun and light-hearted...

03/02/2016

SadChantal 20.11

Anything would be more fun and light-hearted than the last year of my life.

Go on, fire away...

03/02/2016

AlfreDario77 20.12

It might not be the most fun and light-hearted topic for most people,

but it is for me: What do you do? For work, I mean.

Chantal sat motionless in front of her PC. It was unbelievable how this guy had managed to hit her where it hurt. He’d started with family, then moved on to love, and finally, in an attempt to talk about something more “fun and light-hearted”, he'd delivered the coup de grace.

Work had been a sore point for a while now.

She began to tap away at the keyboard, and her words appeared on the screen.

“Fuck off,” she muttered, burying her head in her hands.

She deleted what she had just typed, reducing the message window to nothing but a flashing cursor.

The thirty-three-going-on-twenty-five-year-old girl got up from her swivel chair and headed into the kitchen.

“Where the fuck are they?” she asked herself, scanning the table she hadn’t cleared from earlier.

Nothing. They weren’t there.

She cast her eyes over to the shelf by the sink.

They weren’t there either.

She puffed out her cheeks in frustration and headed for the living room hoping for better luck. She raised a finger to her mouth and began to bite nervously on her nail. Her eyes were darting around the room: the glass coffee table, the shelving unit on the wall, the old writing desk...

“There you are!”

She walked over to the antique piece of furniture and grabbed the packet of Philip Morris. She took a cigarette from the pack and lit it, hoping that the nicotine would somehow inspire her to create a cover story that could mask what she had really, shamefully, done for a living.

By the time she had returned to the bedroom, the cigarette was already half smoked, and a couple of pieces of ash fell to the tiled floor.

“Dammit!” she admonished her own carelessness.

She was about to go back in the kitchen to fetch an ashtray, and a damp sponge to clean up the fallen ash, when her PC emitted a familiar ping.

She peered at the screen. There were four new messages.

03/02/2016

AlfreDario77 20.16

Hello?

03/02/2016

AlfreDario77 20.17

Don’t tell me I’ve touched another nerve with work!

03/02/2016

AlfreDario77 20.20

You still there?

03/02/2016

AlfreDario77 20.23

What’s going on?

Don’t tell me I’ve touched another nerve with work!

Well, kind of.

You still there?

If truth be told, she didn’t know if she was still there or not. It was probably about a year ago that she started not really being there. And it had got worse ever since as she was beset by one problem after another, slamming into her like a high-speed train.

What’s going on?

She had no clue what was going on, only that she’d lost her mind in some corner of this godforsaken earth. No, there was definitely no happy ending to the last year of her life.

She took another drag and realised the cigarette had burned down to the filter.

“Fuck’s sake!”

She flicked the butt out of the window and turned back to the screen. He could wait, for now.

She moved the cursor up and to the right, and clicked on the X. The chat window disappeared to be replaced by a giant winking emoji.

Her computer had been her virtual world for days, but she switched it off and returned to the real world.

CHAPTER 2

Until this time last year, her life had been completely different.

Mamma and Papà had raised her lovingly. When she left high school, she had wanted to start working so she could contribute to the household income, but her parents had insisted she apply to university.

“Choose whatever course you like,” her father had said, more serious than she had ever seen him. “We’ll find a way of paying your boarding costs.”

She chose Economics, and she already knew enough about that particular subject to know that she didn’t want to be a burden on her parents for years to come. She'd found herself a part-time job at Lilly's Snack Bar so she could at least contribute to some of her uni-related expenses: train fares, books, lunches away from home.

She worked at the bar, just a couple of miles from the family home, for the first two years of her course, doing the 5.30pm-10pm shift three nights a week. The money she earned eased the pressure on her folks, at least until the country was rocked by the financial crisis. On one horrible autumn day, Chantal had received a phone call from Signor Ferruccio, who told her (sensitively at least) that he could no longer afford to keep her on. The bar just wasn't generating enough business.

And so Chantal found herself out of a job, and her parents were forced to tighten the purse strings so they could cover all her uni expenses. Then, one day, she responded to an advert:

WANTED: NIGHT CLUB DANCER

The night club turned out to be more of a strip club, requiring topless dancers to strut their stuff in front of sleazy, drooling old men stroking themselves through the inside of their trouser pockets.

But the pay was good and she needed the money, so she had agreed to get up on stage and take her kit off, surrounded by a pack of horny wolves.

When Chantal awoke from her daydream, she found herself standing in the middle of the kitchen. She took a deep breath and pulled yet another cigarette from the rapidly emptying packet.

She had tried to quit so many times but succumbed whenever life got tough.

It was more than just life getting tough though; it was a deep, dark depression that had pervaded every fibre of her being.

She took three long drags on her cigarette, glanced over at the dirty dishes piled up in the sink and shook the tablecloth over the balcony. The sparrows would be grateful for the breadcrumbs.

Taking another couple of drags, she headed back indoors and stubbed out the cigarette in the ashtray. She wandered into the bathroom and took all her clothes off, glancing at herself in the mirror but not stopping to admire what she saw. That same body, lusted after by dozens of randy old gits at the club, had been traded in for a younger model by the man she'd thought was the love of her life.

Pushing those painful memories to the back of her mind, she reached inside the shower and turned it on. She put her hands under the jet until it reached the right temperature, stepped into the shower and waited for the water to succeed where yet another cigarette had failed, by calming her thoughts.

CHAPTER 3

He opens his eyes.

He feels drowsy, or perhaps it's the after-effects of the stuff he is forced to take.

Must be some sort of tranquiliser. But he says nothing. He doesn't moan. All that matters is that he gets what he wants. And so far, he always has.

He looks over to the opposite corner of the room.

Still there.

He smiles and begins to drool at the prospect of his favourite meal, which has been there for some time now.

He yawns.

Why me and not someone else?

He asks himself the same question nearly every day.

Why me and not him?

He doesn't actually need an answer, as long as he gives him what he wants...something to play with. Something that sates him and yet leaves him feeling empty.

He belches - damn acid reflux -

gets up from the dirty, unmade bed and thirstily gulps down some water from a plastic bottle in an attempt to get rid of the taste of whatever the hell he'd forced him to swallow.

He sniffs, slips a hand inside his pants and lightly touches his cock and balls.

He pauses for a few moments as he looks at himself in the mirror and tells himself he’s not an ugly man. Sure, he could improve things if he took a little more pride in his appearance,

but he’s OK like this. A glance over at his favourite meal in the corner. All that matters is that he always gets what he wants.

And he has.

But he doesn’t fancy it right now.

Perhaps his appetite will return after a cold shower.

He scratches at his beard. He hasn't shaved for...goodness knows how many days.

He turns on the cold tap, cups his hands under the stream and splashes the water over his face, which is either just tired or numb from those fucking tranquilisers.

He turns the tap off and watches as the drops of water fall from his face. He takes off his dirty t-shirt, uses it to dry himself off and tosses it casually onto the bed.

Before getting in the tiny shower, he again casts his eyes over to the shape in the corner and realises he is changing his mind.

His hunger is returning.

He wants to gorge himself like an animal that has just emerged from hibernation. The thought prompts a twinge inside his pants.

‘Behave!’ he tells himself.

His breathing starts to become heavy and laboured. Beads of sweat begin to form on his brow. He’s getting aroused; it always happens like this.

Another glance at the shape in the corner. Another little fiddle downstairs. His mouth begins to water.

‘Later! She’s not going anywhere,’ he tells himself. ‘She’s all yours...’

“All mine!”

He smiles because he knows it's the truth.

He takes a deep breath, lets his pants fall to the floor and uses his tongue to suck the air through his teeth. He loves the feeling it gives him, the sensation on his teeth and gums.

He enters the shower, lifts up the mixer tap and turns it all the way to the right. He wants it ice cold, like always.

As the water beats down relentlessly on his muscular back, he begins to anticipate what will happen when he has finished washing himself.

The saliva begins to taste sweet in his mouth and the urge in his groin becomes uncontrollable.

Thankfully, it’s nearly time to get out of the shower...

CHAPTER 4

‘Is it really me that should be ashamed?’

Chantal poured herself a glass of sparkling mineral water and sipped it slowly but determinedly, fuelling herself with some non-alcoholic Dutch courage.

‘It's them who should be ashamed, paying me a pittance for two years and...’

There was a thud as she angrily thumped her fist on the table.

‘...and then letting me go. Morons!’

Chantal became enraged every time she thought back to when she was fired, or, more accurately, they refused to renew her contract. What pissed her off the most was the shame she felt at being unemployed and living off benefits of four hundred euros a month.

Four hundred euros...

She'd dedicated her life to her studies for four hundred shitty euros a month. Oh, and an Economics degree. Which she could use for...making a paper aeroplane or maybe wiping her arse. Oh yes. That was Italy in 2016. On the one hand, there were people with a career spanning more than forty years who weren't about to retire anytime soon; and on the other, there were millions of young people who would give their eye teeth for a job - any bloody job.

Unfortunately for Chantal, she was one of those young people.

She took out a fag, went into her bedroom and switched on the computer. Her long, drawn-out drags meant she was down to the butt in no time.

Chantal opened the chat site and tried to think how she could possibly explain her plight to AlfreDario77.

There was an unread message.

03/02/2016

AlfreDario77 20.32

Fine...you could have just said if you didn't want to chat anymore. If your manners ever come back, you know where I am.

“Fair enough,” she said to the screen. “I'd have been pissed off if someone had done that to me.”

She took another puff and drummed her fingers on the desk, trying desperately to think of how she could respond.

04/02/2016

SadChantal 10.15

Hi...

I’m so sorry about last night. It’s not that I didn't want to keep talking to you. Something came up.

That was fine to start with, while she waited for some inspiration on how she could deal with the whole work thing. Also, she wanted to be sure he was online, which would be confirmed by the little green circle next to his name.

She casually rolled the wheel of her mouse to scroll up the screen in search of yesterday's messages.

It might not be the most fun and light-hearted topic for most people, but it is for me. What do you do? For work, I mean.

And then...

Don’t tell me I’ve touched another nerve with work!

She decided to try and respond to that final comment, which was probably the easiest to cope with. She wrote her message but waited a couple of minutes before sending it, hoping he would come online.

Nothing.

She opted to finish the fag with a triple drag that brought tears to her eyes, before stubbing it out firmly in the ash tray, steeling herself and decisively hitting the return key to send her message.

04/02/2016

SadChantal 10.18

You're right. You did touch a nerve as far as my work is concerned…:-(

She focused on what to type next, her fingers once more drumming against the desk. The sentences were beginning to form in her mind. She was almost there when she was distracted by a familiar ping.

04/02/2016

AlfreDario77 10.19

Hey...welcome back! You took your time...

04/02/2016

SadChantal 10.20

Sorry again about last night...

04/02/2016

AlfreDario77 10.20

No problem!

Chantal thought about what to say next, but he beat her to it.

04/02/2016

AlfreDario77 10.20

So I did touch a nerve with work? I'm sorry. I'm all ears if you want to offload...

She knew it was time to come clean. If there was anyone who should be ashamed of themselves it was those tossers at Robobi's, who had refused to renew her contract after turning her brain to mush for two years with bills, receipts, tax returns, payslips and whatever else.

Bastards!

Her jaw tightened every time she thought about it.

04/02/2016

SadChantal 10.22

I've been out of work for 5 months...

Only eight words, but that was all that needed saying for now.

04/02/2016

AlfreDario77 10.22

Sorry to hear that…

04/02/2016

SadChantal 10.23

Tell me about it…:-(

04/02/2016

AlfreDario77 10.23

Do you know what? I might be able to help you out...

04/02/2016

SadChantal 10.23

Really?

04/02/2016

AlfreDario77 10.25

I run a B&B in Grosseto, Tuscany. It's mine, I own it. Last year, the girl that was helping me out decided to move on. So I'm looking for a willing replacement.

04/02/2016

AlfreDario77 10.26

What do you think? Would you be interested? Do you know anything about the hospitality sector?

Chantal stared at the monitor for ages. She couldn't believe it. She'd sent off dozens of copies of her CV without managing to get an interview. In fact, no one had even bothered to reply. And here she was, chatting with some guy she'd only met two days ago, and he was offering her a job.

Hardly local though, was it? Tuscany, for goodness' sake.

04/02/2016

AlfreDario77 10.29

Done another disappearing act, have you? If you're not interested, there's no need to turn off your PC! You can just tell me :-)

Chantal chastised herself for taking so long to reply. She took a deep breath.

04/02/2016

SadChantal 10.30

Sounds incredible! A B&B! I did some bar work for a few years...is that any good?

04/02/2016

AlfreDario77 10.31

Perfect. It's not quite the same thing but at least you wouldn't be starting from scratch.

04/02/2016

SadChantal 10.32

If your B&B was in somewhere in the Brescia area, I could come for a trial. But Tuscany...blimey! That's a hell of a long way...

04/02/2016

AlfreDario77 10.33

I know it's quite far. But it's not as if you'd have to go back to Brescia every night. You'd have board and lodging on top of your salary. A bedroom and bathroom all to yourself.

04/02/2016

SadChantal 10.35

I'd have to drop everything...leave my hometown...

Chantal realised what she'd written was total bollocks. It may have been a throwaway comment, but more likely she was lying to herself about the tragedy of the previous twelve months. Drop everything? She didn't have anything to drop.

She wondered if he'd figured as much. Right from the off, she'd spilled her guts and basically let him know that she was on her own.

04/02/2016

AlfreDario77 10.38

It might do you good. Draw a line in the sand, turn over a new leaf...

Look, I don't want to pressure you. I know it's a tough decision. You'll need time.

04/02/2016

SadChantal 10.39

You're right...it's not an easy decision. Give me a couple of days, OK?

04/02/2016

AlfreDario77 10.40

Take all the time you need.

Chantal reflected on what had just happened. It was a great opportunity, but she'd need to be brave. Drop everything (even if it was nothing) and go to Tuscany.

She had been on several trips with Giulio, all fairly far away. She'd been to some beautiful places, some on the other side of the world. But Tuscany, which was just down the road in comparison, was somewhere she'd never been.

04/02/2016

SadChantal 10.42

I'll just say thanks for the offer at the moment. I'll have a think about it and let you know as soon as possible. Is that OK?

04/02/2016

AlfreDario77 10.44

Like I said, there's no rush. Take as long as you need, within reason! The season gets under way in about a month's time. People start to arrive at the beginning of spring.

Chantal closed the chat window and decided to treat herself to some peace and quiet and a smoke before heading to the shopping precinct to buy some lunch. Trouble was, there was no peace and quiet to be had: a voice inside her head kept asking the same questions over and over.

Do I? Don't I? Do I? Don't I? Do I? Don't I? Do I? Don't I? Do I? Don't I?

She may have told this guy she needed a few days to think it over, but Chantal knew deep down that she'd already made up her mind.

CHAPTER 5

The key turned twice in the lock and the door opened.

She entered her flat, food shopping in one hand and purse in the other. She raised one foot behind her and kicked the door shut, before dumping her shopping bag in the kitchen and heading towards the bathroom. But as she walked through the living room, something caught her eye.

She froze and stared at the photo.

Her mouth turned down at the corners and she began to weep.

She made no effort to wipe away her tears as she drew nearer the photo frame. Her stomach tightened.

She took another two steps closer to the photo of the woman, who appeared to be smiling right at her, and swallowed tearfully. She raised her hand to her mouth and bit down on her knuckles.

"Mam..." she sobbed. "Mamma."

She sniffed and turned once more to face the woman in the photo, as if she could hear her.

"I miss you so much, you know?"

She gave in to the anguish and broke down in floods of tears, leaving herself drained but somehow liberated.

As the torment began to subside, her lips forced themselves into a wry smile as she remembered how much joy her mother had brought her.

Chantal was in Year 6. Until that year she had always been shy around boys, but in Year 6 everything changed.

There was a knock on the door during Maths. It was the caretaker, and with her was the most handsome boy Chantal had ever seen. He had fair hair and blue eyes. Just looking at his smile made her feel good.

"This is Davide," the caretaker announced.

The teacher nodded at the caretaker and took up the story. "Davide has come from Veneto. He'll be joining our class from today."

From that moment on, Chantal learned nothing more about decimals, fractions, multiplication or division. From the minute he entered the classroom, she didn't take her eyes off that boy for a second.

Within weeks, it was as if they'd known each other all their lives, grown up together and played the same games in the same playground.

One breaktime, he asked her to follow him. So she did. He led her almost to the bottom of the park, where there stood two enormous trees. He told her to close her eyes and count to ten before opening them again.

"Why?" she asked, bursting with intrigue.

"I have a surprise for you," Davide announced, flashing her that smile of his.

"You're not going to play a trick on me, are you?"

"No! Trust me. Just close your eyes."

Chantal closed her eyes and began to count.

One, two, three...

Just as she reached nine, her voice was smothered as something pressed against her lips. She was startled and wanted to open her eyes, but she realised what was happening and kept them closed.

Not only that, she reciprocated.

It was her first kiss. Their magical moment was rudely interrupted by the sound of the school bell. As she opened her eyes, he said: "I like you."

They returned to class in silence, totally wrapped up in each other, and as the lesson unfolded Chantal was certain that she knew less then than she had when she'd first laid eyes on Davide.

At the end of school, she got on the bus and went home. She couldn't eat a thing: her stomach was so full of butterflies flitting about that there was no room for anything else.

Her mother asked her what the matter was, and suddenly she had a crazy thought. Her expression turned sullen and her mother urged her to get whatever was bothering her off her chest.

Chantal was afraid her mother would shout at her, but eventually she decided to speak.

She said she was worried she was pregnant.

"Pregnant?" her mother repeated, with eyes as wide as saucers. "And what makes you think you might be pregnant?"

Chantal hesitated.

"You know the friend I've been telling you about over the last few days? The new kid?"

"Yeeeesss."

She looked down at the floor to avoid her mother's gaze.

"He kissed me today. On the lips."

Her mother waited a few seconds and, once she was sure her little girl had nothing more to add, asked:

"And then what?"

"Nothing. That was it. We kissed on the lips for five minutes. Non-stop. And with our eyes closed!"

Her mother smiled affectionately at her, but it was a smile that also betrayed a ruefulness that her little girl would soon become a young woman. She took her daughter's face in her hands and explained to her, calmly and in very simple terms, what needed to happen for a woman to get pregnant.

"Pregnant because of a kiss?" she finished, "oh Chanty!"

"But Mamma, I thought th..."

Her mother smiled at her warmly. "You're so naive, Chanty. Just like your mother. "You and me, we're like two drops of water."

As Chantal opened her eyes, she raised a finger to her lips and smiled. She wiped her cheeks dry and looked once more at the smiling face of her mother, who had been right yet again.

CHAPTER 6

He looked in the mirror.

His eyes were so lifeless that the blue of his irises appeared as black as the pupil inside them.

He opened his mouth slightly and stared at the prominent cavity on one of his incisors. Goodness knows how many years the tooth had been blighted by that hideous brown mark.

He couldn't care less. He was on a mission.

If he didn't smile, no one would see it - simple as that. He had begun to use his dental defect as a way of passing the time and relieving tension. The thrill - or perhaps it was pain - he experienced when he flicked at the cavity with his tongue was arousing. Sometimes, it even gave him a hard-on.

He stared at his swollen red ear lobe, and then shifted his gaze to the other one, which was as white as the rest of him.

He had no idea why he only ever scratched and butchered his right lobe.

Initially, it was an unconscious response to the pain emanating from his tooth. The tic had stayed with him ever since. It wasn't an attractive habit, he knew that much, so he tried to make sure he only ever did it when he was alone.

It gave him such a thrill...not as much as rubbing his tongue against the cavity, mind.

He scratched his right lobe and slowly slid his tongue over the decayed incisor. He weighed up which gave him more pleasure and decided that it was indeed the tongue on the cavity, by some distance. No contest.

He looked once more at his reflection. His hair was totally dishevelled. He dipped his fingers into a tub of gel and retrieved a small amount, which he carefully applied to the tips of his short hair.

Now he was ready.

Although he kept staring at himself in the mirror, his mind was elsewhere. On his mission. His obsession. He removed his phone from his pocket and re-read the message.

It was time. To hell with the arguments. It was all water under the bridge. Some things were more important.

He slid the phone back into his pocket and walked out of the room.

He needed to get a move on.

CHAPTER 7

She was still wondering whether to accept his job offer. If she said yes, she'd have to leave her hometown behind for...months? Years?

Move to the back and beyond somewhere in Tuscany.

If she said no, she'd be throwing away a golden opportunity. Paid employment at a time when jobs were at a premium.

A wave of disgust washed over her as she thought back to her work at the strip club.

She hadn't enjoyed getting naked in front of all those lust-fuelled men; she'd just needed the money. She'd put up with it for around three years and probably would have kept doing so had it not happened.

One evening, while she was changing before heading home, Signor Tironi came into the changing room and asked for five minutes of her time so the two of them could talk business.

Business, that's what he said.

She agreed and he embarked on a seemingly never-ending monologue

before eventually getting to the point.

The business.

He told her she was one of the best dancers and strippers he'd ever worked with. And also the most beautiful. She was loved by all the customers, but one was particularly keen. A wealthy businessman in his fifties. Tironi told her the man was willing to pay anything to spend a night with her.

Chantal raised an eyebrow and looked at him disdainfully.

"So, what do you think?" he asked casually. "What are you looking at me like that for?"

She answered quickly and firmly.

"I'm a dancer, not a whore."

He smiled.

"If you were some kind of nun, you wouldn't be flashing your tits about in my club. Think about it, Chantal. This guy is our best customer. He's got more money than the lot of us put together," he said, drawing a circle in the air with a nicotine-stained finger.

"I strip because I need the money," she replied coldly. "I'm not proud of what I do, but getting your kit off in front of men is one thing, and going to bed with them is something else entirely."

Tironi drew closer and stroked her hair, his stubby fingers brushing against her face.

"Perhaps...but you may not even have to sleep with him." He smiled at her again. "He might be happy with...you know...flirt with him a little, get him hard, suck him off. Close your eyes for three minutes, swallow like a good girl and walk off with five hundred big ones."

She tied up her shoes and stood up. Walked over to the little table and picked up her soft drink.

"So, let's see if I've understood." She stroked her boss's cheek. "I flirt with him a little." She brushed up against him. "I get him hard." She bit her lip. "And I suck him off." She slid her index finger inside her mouth and bit down. Hard.

Tironi smirked.

Chantal continued.

"Then I close my eyes," she whispered, gently pushing down her boss's eyelids. "Three minutes and..."

She threw her drink in Tironi's face.

"Fuck off, you prick!" she snarled.

"What the fuck do you think you're playing at, you stupid girl? You do realise that I could..."

She never heard the end of that sentence. She had already stormed out of the changing room and slammed the door behind her.

She hadn't worked for the strip club since and never would again. She'd been out of work for nearly two years before Robobi's forced her into a two-year contract earning a few hundred euros a month. And then chose not to renew it.

"Bastards," she said, piercing a cube of mozzarella with her fork.

She convinced herself that the offer from the guy in the chat room – What was he called again? Oh yeah, Alfredo – really was a golden ticket. Salary, board and lodging. It was the answer to all her prayers.

If she accepted the job, she'd have to go and see her father before she left. He might have been off his rocker these days, but she would still have to say goodbye.

CHAPTER 8

On reaching the roundabout at the intersection of Via Paglia and Via Carducci, she'd considered doing an about turn and heading back home. But a little voice inside her head had told her she couldn't leave town without saying goodbye. So she'd gone round the roundabout three times before taking the exit towards the clinic.

Giancarlo Moretti was in bed, the covers pulled up to his chest. Beads of sweat glistened on his furrowed brow. His eyes were closed, shutting out the world that had robbed him of his wife a year earlier.

He was asleep. Perfect. She no longer needed an excuse not to talk to him.

Chantal breathed a sigh of relief, but immediately felt like a coward: she had neither the courage nor the desire to enter the room and talk to the man who had always been a perfect parent.

Nearly always, she corrected herself.

Chantal watched her father and reflected on the unfortunate circumstances that had brought him there.

Giancarlo Moretti had led a troubled life but had always got by, even when his problems had seemed insurmountable. But the premature loss of his wife had floored him for good. He'd let himself go one day at a time, alcohol the only point to his existence. The drinking had started the week after the funeral. Before being admitted to the rehab clinic, he would get up in the middle of the night and guzzle whatever he could lay his hands on. Whatever could make him forget the sad reality of life.

Chantal knew what he was doing, but he'd always denied it. That was, until he came home in the early hours one morning and collapsed on the living room floor. The colossal crash had woken Chantal with a start. She'd feared they were being burgled, and her instinct was to lock herself in her room. But then she'd recognised the sobbing and phlegmy coughs of her father. She'd turned on the light and headed towards the noise. And there he was. She'd walked over to him, helped him to his feet, looked him straight in the eye and seen a pitifully drunk old man.

Having struggled to get him to bed, Chantal didn't sleep a wink that night - unlike her father, who was out for the count and snoring within minutes.

The binges became increasingly heavy and frequent, and he started to get nasty with her.

Then he hit rock bottom. He came home one night and Chantal went in to find him sprawled on the sofa, a knocked-over bottle of whisky by his side and vomit down his greasy shirt. His head was back and he was foaming at the mouth.

Chantal was petrified. Her hands shaking, she'd fumbled around in her handbag for her phone and rung the emergency services. They'd managed to save him, but the doctor told her he would be better off in a rehab clinic. He'd advised her to take her father to the nearest SerT, a public drug treatment centre. After all, they couldn't afford private care. So that's what she had done, hoping that he would respond well to treatment and make a full recovery.

But months later, Giancarlo Moretti was still in the clinic. The detox process had resulted in a string of psychiatric problems that had put even more strain on the father-daughter relationship.

Chantal came back to the present, pulled a tissue from her bag and dabbed at her eyes. She glanced over at her father and couldn't help but cry. She raised a hand to her mouth and blew him a kiss.

"Good luck, Papà. I just came to say bye," she whispered.

But she feared it was more than just goodbye:

"Farewell, Dad."

She took a couple of steps away, then turned around and looked back through the glass wall of her father's room:

"I love you. I've always loved you."

CHAPTER 9

Chantal's computer flickered into life.

This was it. Decision time. The job she'd been offered would give her a fresh start. Hopefully, it would be a change for the better.

Could hardly be any worse than the previous year, she told herself.

She manoeuvred her mouse over the mouse mat, clicked on the smiley face and watched as the chat window opened and displayed her most recent messages.

She had no problem finding the right words this time. They came pouring out effortlessly, and she was so sure of herself that she hit 'send' without even bothering to re-read what she'd typed.

06/02/2016

SadChantal 17.43

Hi Alfredo. I've thought about your offer and have decided to accept it. Just let me know when I can start! Have a nice evening.

No sooner had she sent the message, she couldn't wait for her new adventure to begin. She got up and located her cigarettes. If her mother had been there, she'd no doubt have chastised her for restricting herself to tinned tuna and cheap pasta so she could afford to buy fags. On four hundred euros a month, she couldn't have her cake and eat it.

She felt a bit stupid, but she couldn't suppress her desire to smoke.

She lit up and inhaled greedily. As she blew out a cloud of smoke, she chewed nervously at a hangnail on her thumb.

She took another drag and looked around the room, searching for something else to make her forget her current plight.

She looked right, then left, but nothing she saw managed to distract her.

Until she glanced over at the shelf next to the stereo. A photo showed her striking a pose in her swimming costume as she lay on a brilliant-white beach. She could remember the exact moment the snap had been taken.

The exact moment he had taken it.

It was only just over a year ago, but it seemed like a lifetime.

That was the last time she had gone to the beach and smelt the sea air.

She'd forgotten the smell itself,

but she knew it was the most wonderful thing she'd ever smelt.

She smiled as she thought of spending the rest of her life by the seaside. That would be her ideal scenario. By the sea, she felt only joy; no anger or bitterness. By the sea, she felt only calm; no sudden bouts of anxiety.

Whatever the problem, the sea could resolve it. At least that's what she'd thought until that last holiday, the one immortalised in the photo she was now staring at.

They'd decided to go to Mauritius.

As they'd flicked through the holiday brochures, they'd fallen in love with the views, which were seemingly from another world. They'd hoped that the trip would repair the cracks that had started to appear in their relationship after months of fighting. An eight-year relationship.

Eight years of being Chantal and Giulio.

They were so happy in Mauritius: swimming in the sea; walks on the beach; candlelit dinners; sex morning, noon and night. So much sex.

Before jetting off, they'd decided they would make a baby right there in that paradise on earth. They'd certainly tried hard enough, but Chantal had her period when they got back to Italy. They kept trying, but there was no sign of her falling pregnant so they went to see Dr Cresti, a gynaecologist, who referred them for tests.

They waited for ten long days for the results.

There was no problem with Giulio's sperm, but Chantal's ovaries were considerably swelled by cysts, which were preventing fertilisation.

She went under the knife, and the operation was a success, but she still couldn't get pregnant. They subjected her to more tests, which revealed she would not be able to have children. Chantal had cried for a whole week, and just as the tears had finally begun to dry, she'd caught Giulio in bed with another woman.

"It would never have lasted anyway," he'd told her in an attempt to justify his infidelity. "I'd never have stayed with a woman who couldn't give me a child."

His words had cut like a knife. And her scars would never heal.