Love at the italian lake, p.1
Love at the Italian Lake, page 1
Love at the Italian Lake
Table of Contents
Love at the Italian Lake
For my husband and children, with love. XXX
Sophia Bertoni let herself into her apartment then picked up the post from the hall table and began leafing through it. Lee must have collected it from their mailbox in the lobby; at least that meant he’d done something today.
There were a few credit card statements, but nothing interesting. There were always more bills to pay but that was the downside of her chosen lifestyle. She sighed. For a short while, when she was at work, she was able to forget how empty her life sometimes seemed, but as soon as she arrived at the luxury apartment she shared with Lee, her misgivings loomed like grey clouds. Particularly after the day from hell that she’d just had.
But a hot bath and at least five hours’ sleep would help. Seeing as how she’d got home before nine, she might even get more than six hours in bed.
All she wanted to do was kick off her shoes, soak in some jasmine-scented bubbles, crawl under the Egyptian cotton duvet cover, then sleep.
She’d tried to explain how exhausting and unfulfilling her job was to Lee on numerous occasions, but he’d looked at her as if she was mad for questioning their main source of income, then followed up with, ‘Did you pick up milk on the way home?’
Lee: Mr Sensitivity. Not!
They’d been together for three years but sometimes – well, most of the time – Sophia wondered why they stayed together. A mutual acquaintance had introduced them at a cocktail party in the Tower of London, and after too many Espresso Martinis, Sophia had ended up taking Lee back to her apartment. Somehow, he’d never left. The next day, when she’d got home, she’d found him waiting in the lobby with a bag and soon he’d moved all of his belongings in. They hadn’t even had a conversation about it; Lee had just gatecrashed her life. She was so assertive at work, so aloof and focused, but for some reason – possibly the fact that it was nice to have another human being in her home – she’d allowed him to assume the role of boyfriend.
And so it had been for three years. If she started to question why they’d stayed together, she supposed it could be attributed to habit, apathy and, possibly, a lack of belief that another relationship would be any better and that the grass was not, in fact, greener elsewhere.
Sophia shook her head. She’d been far too busy proving herself within a male-dominated environment at work to give her relationship much thought, and whenever doubts about Lee did creep in, she pushed them away for a day when she was less tired, less busy, less…
What was that?
She’d heard a noise from their bedroom. It sounded like a groan, as if someone was in pain. Her heart fluttered.
‘Yes… just like that… yes, more…’
That didn’t sound like it hurt! And who was that? Her brain frantically tried to place the voice. Was it Ben, the twenty-four-hour concierge, come to deliver a package that Lee couldn’t be bothered to carry up to their apartment? Even though there was a lift. Besides, that would mean that Ben had beaten her from the lobby and she doubted he could have run up seventeen flights of stairs.
Was it Lee’s sister come round to try to bully him into attending some family function that he’d conveniently tried to forget about?
Why would she be in my bedroom?
She slid her shoes off in the hallway then tiptoed over to the bedroom door and held her breath.
There were two voices: Lee’s and… a female. Perhaps he was watching TV in bed. The other voice was laced with an Australian accent.
Sophia exhaled and pushed the door open.
Then immediately wished that she hadn’t.
‘Oh. My. God!’ Her jaw dropped. The post slipped from her hand and landed on the cream carpet.
She took a step into the room, feeling the plush fibres of the Axminster beneath her naked soles.
‘I thought I’d come home after a very long day at work but it seems that I’ve actually just walked into the Playboy mansion.’
‘Sophia!’ A very-naked Lee sprang off the bed and grabbed a t-shirt from the floor, then clutched it to his groin. ‘I… thought you were working through tonight.’
‘Did you?’ Sophia looked from her boyfriend with his expensive-brown haircut, to the woman sprawled on her bed – who was also completely naked – except for a covering of whipped cream.
‘Yes… I… uh… this is, um…’
‘Jessica!’ The blonde spat from her prone position. ‘How many times, Lee?’
‘Well I didn’t think she was a pavlova, did I?’ Something bubbled inside Sophia but she couldn’t determine what it was. She didn’t feel like she was about to cry. Or scream. Or throw up.
Then it burst from her.
At first, just a snort, then a giggle, then full-on deep-in-her-belly laughter.
‘What are you laughing about?’ Lee frowned, his perfectly groomed mahogany brows meeting above his nose. He ran his free hand over his full beard, his pride and joy. He’d spent months perfecting the beard, then taking selfies so he could post them on Instagram with the hashtag hotbeardyguy. It had irritated Sophia at first, this technological form of vanity, but she’d grown immune to it after seeing that he’d posted over two hundred bearded selfies. What was the point in trying to make him change? She’d had a good look on the app and so many others were doing it, and garnering society’s approval, that it had become ‘the norm’. Although Lee’s excitement over likes did occasionally make her want to shave his face while he slept.
But now, Sophia noticed that he had whipped cream in amongst the hairs under his bottom lip and her stomach churned. Suddenly it wasn’t so funny.
‘This is just ridiculous, Lee. That’s why I was laughing. I come home from what was, quite frankly, a bloody awful day, exhausted and in need of a bath,’ her voice wobbled, ‘to find you in our bed with… with—’
‘With Jessica… and I’m just stumped. I can’t quite believe this is happening.’ She rubbed her eyes as if that would make the spectacle disappear.
‘Er, could someone hand me a towel?’ Jessica asked. ‘This is actually really sticky.’ She held her hands out over her body and waved them up and down as if she expected someone to wipe it all away. Which is what Lee was presumably going to do… with his tongue. Sophia shuddered.
‘Of course. You’ve had my boyfriend, so why not one of my towels too?’ Sophia grabbed a fluffy purple towel from the radiator, then thrust it at the naked woman.
‘Look, Sophia, this isn’t what it—’
‘Don’t, Lee. Please don’t tell me it isn’t what it looks like because it really is. I don’t know how long it’s been going on but I did wonder why you’d taken to changing the bed recently instead of leaving it for the cleaner to do. Don’t look so surprised!
The laughter she’d felt just moments before had drained away and left her cold as reality set in.
Tiredness overwhelmed her, seeping into her bones and making them ache. What on earth was she going to do now? She couldn’t even get into her own bed because another woman was in her bedroom yelling at Lee. A woman she should probably be dragging round by the hair and screaming at, but she just didn’t have the energy or inclination to do any of that.
Instead, all she wanted was to curl up in a ball and sleep, just for a bit to let her brain process it all. She didn’t bother going to the kitchen to make tea, but instead went to the lounge where she slumped onto the smooth leather cushions then lay down, curling her legs into her chest as if to make herself as small as possible.
So she hadn’t had sex with Lee in weeks… well, months… and hadn’t even cared if she was honest. Their early passion, the excitement that came with the newness of being with someone, had soon fizzled out and she was usually so tired from work that a hot bath and a bar of chocolate seemed preferable most nights to getting down and dirty with her man. And a good job too, seeing as how he was evidently no longer her man. And he had been getting down and dirty with someone else.
She shuddered. That woman had been in her bed, her safe place, the haven where she went when she needed to shut out the world. How many times had Jessica – or even others – been there? It was disgusting and she was more annoyed about the invasion of her personal space than she was about the fact that Lee had been cheating. In truth, they’d been no more than roommates for quite some time now and the fact she didn’t feel even a pang of jealousy had to tell her their relationship was long since over, didn’t it?
So Lee had cheated; their relationship was dead.
She waited for tears to come but her eyes stayed dry. She just felt numb. Curiously detached.
She closed her eyes and started to drift, allowing sleep to carry her far from naked blondes with surgically enhanced curves and cheating boyfriends with dairy-covered beards.
But just before she submitted to unconsciousness, a thought pinged into her mind where it glowed like a neon sign.
Now it is time for your life to change…
‘Eat up, Sophia, you’re looking too thin!’
‘Dad, I really doubt that.’ Sophia blushed under her father’s scrutiny. With his eyes so dark they were almost black, his thick brown hair and five o’clock shadow that never went, even when he was freshly shaven, he would have blended in well on any number of movies about Italian families. At just over six foot and eighteen stone, he could be an intimidating man, and Sophia had seen him deal effortlessly with fractious customers on more than one occasion. But to her, he was just Dad, the man who’d tucked her into bed at night, made her hot lemon and honey when she was ill and who always had her back.
She’d woken up on the sofa after about an hour, stiff and cold, to find the apartment in darkness. Lee and Jessica had gone. And Sophia realized that she didn’t want to stay there either, so she’d thrown some clothes into a bag and headed to her parents’ restaurant where they’d be dealing with the last customers of the evening.
‘You’ve lost weight with working all hours and for what?’ He scowled and she knew he was thinking about Lee. ‘To keep a roof over the head of that good for nothing…’
Sophia pushed the carbonara around her plate with her fork, but the mere sight of the creamy sauce was turning her stomach. She hadn’t meant to tell her parents that she’d found out was Lee cheating, but it had all just poured out as soon as she’d seen them. ‘Dad, I’m okay. Honestly!’
Sophia’s mother placed a hand on her shoulder. ‘How could he cheat on you after all you’d done for him?’ Her mother sniffed loudly.
Sophia dropped her fork onto her plate. ‘Look, Mum, Dad… I love you both so much but you have to stop acting like I’m a child in need of protection. It was a shock, I can’t deny that, but now I have to deal with it and move on.’
Her mother glanced at her father, then nodded.
‘He called here looking for you – just before you arrived – and begged your mother to help him win you back.’ Her father wrinkled his nose. ‘Said he’d been a fool and asked if there was anything we could do to help him fix things.’
‘As if we’d encourage you to spend another minute with that porco schifoso!’
‘Mum, please stop with the Italian insults.’
Sophia’s mother blushed. ‘Sorry, bella, but I am so disappointed in him.’ She waved a tea towel in the air then started frantically polishing a glass, causing her curly dark hair to flop over her forehead.
‘I’m disappointed too.’
Her appetite had completely deserted her now.
‘So what are you going to do, bella?’
Sophia sighed as she looked around the kitchen of her parents’ restaurant. She’d eaten numerous meals in there over the years, completed so many homework assignments, studied hard for important exams, and argued with her two older brothers, Luca and Marco, about everything from politics to who should win Strictly Come Dancing. Of course, her twin brothers always stuck together, seeming to side against her. Their identical faces – so much like her father’s, from their dark eyes to their thick brown hair – creased into smiles when she lost her temper then she ended up laughing herself when she realized that they were winding her up. But she also knew that they’d always stick up for her if she needed them to.
‘I’m not sure. I mean… if it’s okay, I’ll stay with you until I get myself sorted. I have a list of things I need to do tomorrow.’ Just the thought made her head ache.
‘It’s your right to kick him out, you know,’ her father said, a frown darkening his face. ‘You pay for everything.’
‘I know, Dad. I just need to let the dust settle so I can make the right decisions. The fixed rate on the mortgage runs out soon anyway and the new rate is bound to mean a hefty increase, so I guess it’s a good time to think about selling. And I guess now it’s over between us – at least I think it’s over – putting the apartment on the market is something I should consider.’
‘And you are, I hope?’
‘Yes, Mum. Things haven’t been good for some time, we just didn’t admit to it. I suppose this was the sign I needed.’
‘We’ll support you whatever you decide.’
‘One of the guys at work has been on at me for ages to sell him the apartment. I refused, obviously. But now… I’ll speak to him tomorrow and see if he’s still interested.’
Her stomach somersaulted at the thought of having to make such big decisions.
‘It will be okay, bella.’
Sophia sighed as her mother enveloped her in a sweet floral and garlic-scented embrace. Her mother had always been cuddly and that meant for great comforting hugs full of warmth and love.
‘It would do you good to get away for a bit. Go somewhere different, think about what you want from this point on.’ Her mother leaned back and met her eyes.
‘And there’s always a job for you here and a home with us,’ her father added.
‘Thank you. I know that.’ She blinked hard as tears pricked her eyes.
‘Now eat up!’ Her mother gestured at the plate and Sophia nodded as she twirled a strand of pasta round her fork.
Her mother was right; she should think about what it was that she wanted. At thirty-one, time wasn’t exactly against her, but she realized, not for the first time, that something was missing from her life. She had a whole bundle of GCSEs, four A levels, a first in Economics from Cambridge U
So why, almost every night, did she lie awake feeling so empty, questioning what the point of it all was. She had money, good health and intelligence. The skills she’d learned in her job were transferable. But she’d been a complete doormat. Lee had used her for her money and her apartment and she’d let him.
Not any more! She would take an extended holiday from work and give herself the time to think that she so clearly needed.
* * *
‘I’m sorry?’ Sophia shifted in the chair, her armpits tingling with shock, then adjusted her cream silk blouse.
‘Oh, Sophia. I’m sorry, but it’s just not a good time for you to take a holiday.’
Sally Hutton, the only other woman on Sophia’s office floor and her immediate superior, smiled, her grey eyes calm as she gazed at Sophia. From her neat chignon, where every hair was glued into place with super-strong-hold hairspray, to her Gucci business suits and Jimmy Choo black suede courts, Sally exuded confidence and control. At forty-five, she was single and childless by choice; she’d even confessed to Sophia at a Christmas party that she’d had her tubes tied to avoid ever becoming pregnant. And Sophia had admired Sally, had seen her as someone she could emulate. But this life, one without holidays, being on constant call, working sixteen-hour days and worrying that she’d lose her job if she even admitted to period pain… was it what she actually wanted any more?
‘But I’ve never complained when you’ve stopped me going away at the last minute. I’ve always put my career first. Always. Sally, I haven’t had a holiday in ages. Can’t you just make an exception for me this time, please? My personal life is… messy and I really need to get away.’
Sally shook her head. ‘You’ve worked here long enough to know how detrimental taking time away can be, Sophia. Especially for a woman. If you go away now… ’ She grimaced, then slammed her hands onto her desk. ‘It’ll all fall down around your ears.’
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