Villa Triste


By Lucretia Grindle

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In World War II Florence, Italy, two sisters trapped by the Nazi Occupation have to make life-altering decisions that will reverberate for decades… and collide with a present day murder investigation.

Florence, Italy, 1943

Two sisters, Isabella and Caterina Cammaccio, find themselves surrounded by terror and death; and with Italy trapped under the heel of a brutal Nazi occupation, a Partisan resistance movement rises up.

Soon Isabella and Caterina will test their wits and deepest beliefs as never before. As the winter grinds on, they will be forced to make the most difficult choices of their lives.

Florence, Italy, 2011

In the present day, senior policeman Alessandro Pallioti agrees to oversee a murder investigation after it emerges the victim was once a Partisan hero. When the case begins to unravel, Pallioti finds himself working to uncover a crime lost in the twilight of war, the consequences of which are as deadly today as they were over sixty years ago.


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Part I

Florence, September 8, 1943

MY WEDDING DRESS SLID OVER my shoulders and hips, the ivory satin cool and slippery. It was barely noon, and already a blanket of stuffy air hung above the city, turning the sky a pale, dirty blue. I could feel my hair wilting and sticking to the back of my neck as the seamstress's assistants, a cadre of silent young girls in pink pinafores, fastened the back, their deft fingers working the rows and rows of tiny buttons. When they were finished, they took me by each arm, like an invalid, and stood me on a stool.

A clock was ticking in the front of the salon, marking the time in thick, syrupy drops, and I tried not to count in my head. Crazy people count in their heads. Hysterics and lunatics. Thirty-two seconds passed before the signora herself came into the fitting room. She looked at me and made a clicking sound with her teeth. Then she went to work. With every tuck and prick, the dress tightened, until I began to wonder if this was how a snake felt just before it shed its skin.

My sister, Isabella, had vanished. Through the fitting room's half-open door, I could see her hat, abandoned on a tufted pink settee. It was ugly and had been insisted upon by our mother. Today was Mama's fiftieth birthday, and instead of coming with me she had stayed at home to oversee the preparations for the party we were giving and had deputized Isabella in her place. Before we left the house, Mama had reminded us that the signora was, under no circumstances, to have her way with the number of buttons on the cuffs of my dress, and then she insisted, almost as an afterthought, that we wear hats. Mine was pale green and matched my dress. Isabella's was blue straw with a pin in the brim. Neither of us particularly cared for hats, but Isabella especially resented being told what to wear. She was nineteen and had just begun her second year at the university, where, she informed our mother, no one wore hats. As we left the house, she jammed the offending article down onto her forehead, muttering that she "wouldn't be surprised if it blew into the river."

But that had not happened. Because by the time we got our bicycles out of the shed and made our way down the hill and through the Porta Romana and along canyon of the Via dei Serragli and finally arrived at the river, we had forgotten all about hats, ugly or otherwise.

The moment we came out onto the lungarno, Isabella and I both realized that something was wrong. There was never much traffic anymore, due to the endless shortages of gasoline, but now there was none. Pausing, we looked both ways and saw that the long, straight avenue was eerily quiet. Below the walls the reed grass was dull and still, the Arno glassy and sluggish. Yet despite the heat, no one was walking on the bridge ahead or lazing against the balustrades. Instead people were gathered in tight little knots. Groups clustered and spilled off the pavements. Voices hummed like a swarm of bees.

Isabella and I exchanged glances. The strange electricity that hung in the air was not altogether unfamiliar. The city had felt like this before, as recently as six weeks ago, when Mussolini was deposed. In fact, ever since then the country had felt slightly stunned, as if it were wandering along trying to wake up from a very deep sleep. Now it appeared that something else had happened, but I couldn't imagine what. It was true that the Allies had made a first attempt at invading the mainland in Calabria—but that had been days ago. Old news. And was so far away that it might have been happening in another country.

Without speaking, Isabella got off her bike and passed it to me. I propped the handlebar against my thigh and watched while she crossed to the nearest group of people. A few moments later, she came back, one hand holding the silly-looking hat, the other gesturing as if I were supposed to guess what it was she had to say. When she reached me, she became very still, her face turning inward, as if she were trying to understand what she had just heard.

"Issa?" I asked finally. "Isabella? What is it?"

I suppose from the look on her face that I thought the king had died, or Winston Churchill, or Stalin, or the pope. But it was none of those.

My sister looked at me, her blue eyes dark. "They're saying it's over."


"Yes." She nodded.

"What's over?"

"The war."

I stared at her. "The war?"

"At least for Italy," she said, then added, "It's just a rumor. But they're saying Badoglio's left Rome."

Isabella took the handlebars of her bike but did not get back on.

Without thinking, I slipped off of mine. "Left Rome?"

I knew I was sounding like a parrot, or an idiot, or both. But I couldn't take in the words. Surely the Allies hadn't somehow reached Rome and chased away the prime minister? In less than a week? Without our hearing a word about it?

"Why would he leave Rome? What do you mean?" I asked. "What are you talking about?"

My sister began to walk. I fell into step beside her. As we neared Piazza Goldoni, I could see people coming out of buildings and milling about.

"An armistice." Isabella looked at me, her eyes sliding sideways under the brim of the hat.

"An armistice?" The parrot again.

A look of exasperation crossed her face. "They're saying that Badoglio has signed an armistice with the Allies," she said, very clearly, as if she were speaking to someone deaf. "He's supposed to make an announcement on the radio, at eight o'clock tonight. To say that Italy is no longer at war. With America or England or anyone," she added, in case I hadn't understood.

But I had. Too well. I stared at her. We were crossing the piazza by then, turning in to the street where the tiny and fearsome signora had her bridal salon.

"But—" I said.

Isabella nodded. She looked down, apparently concentrating on the toes of her shoes. "I know."

We had now turned in to the street and stopped. Bolts of satin, a basket of white roses made of ribbon, and several pairs of small pink shoes surrounded by wisps of tulle were displayed in the salon's window. Beyond them we could see the interior of the front room, soft and pink as a womb, and the door that led to the fitting rooms at the back, ajar.

"I know," Isabella said again. She looked up, reading my face, finishing the thought I had barely begun. "I know," she repeated. "If we're not fighting the Allies, then what about the Germans?"

I felt my mouth go dry. My fiancé, Lodovico, was a naval officer, a medic on a hospital ship serving off North Africa. He was due into Naples any day. In two months he would have leave and come to Florence, and we would be married.

"You'd better go in."

Isabella nodded toward the door of the salon and took the handlebars of my bicycle. But nothing happened. I stood rooted to the pavement. "Eight weeks," Lodovico's last letter had said. "Eight weeks. Here is a kiss for every one of them. Then I will be home."

Now I tried not to shift, to stamp from foot to foot in my satin slippers like a horse bothered by flies. There was no point in asking the signora about anything. Her world was composed solely of seams and hems, of pleated lace and the exact placement of tiny rosebuds. Moreover, she had made it amply clear, more than once, that she did not care for "chat." Mothers might occasionally intervene on matters of necklines and bodices. Brides, however, were to be poked, prodded, grateful, and silent.

It was almost a half hour before the little woman stood up. For the final ten minutes, she had been squatting on her haunches behind me. Oblivious to what might or might not be happening in the world beyond the salon—to anything but the quality of available silk and whether or not the right "foundation garments" could still be found in Milan or Paris—the signora muttered something, and two of the pale, silent creatures who shadowed her, handing out marking chalk and measuring tapes, stepped forward. They helped me down from the stool, one on each arm again, and stood me, like a giant doll, facing a standing mirror that was covered with a sheet. Without speaking, they arranged the train of my dress, smoothing it across the floor. A third girl appeared, carrying a swath of tissue paper, holding it in front of her with both hands. I heard a faint rustling as she laid it on the bench behind me.

Through the open door, I saw the hat, still on the settee. Isabella was nowhere in sight. I suspected she had gone to try to find a newspaper or listen to a radio, and I could hardly blame her, but all the same I wished she would come back. My heart felt strange, like something in a cage. A few more of the girls materialized. Then more rustling. Tissue paper whispered as they placed the veil on my head.

Standing behind me in a semicircle, faces full of studied expectation, hands folded in front of them, the assistants waited, until finally the tiny signora rose on her toes. Her hand reached up, fast as a cat's claw, and whipped the sheet away from the mirror.

I blinked.

A tall girl blinked back at me. Her hair was hidden, covered in what looked like a spider's web. Her eyes stared. Wrapped in white, she looked like a column of smoke. Like a woman in a shroud. Like Lot's wife, who stopped, looked back, and turned to salt.

Isabella had found a newspaper, but it said nothing. Officially, there was nothing to say, because nothing had happened. But everyone knew that wasn't true. During the almost three hours since I had entered the salon, the streets had changed. The stunned, electric feeling had gone. The storm had broken, and this time no one was asleep. As we cycled home, abandoning the hats—Isabella's on the settee and mine kicked to the side of the changing cubicle with a viciousness it probably didn't deserve—we found ourselves swerving. Braking. More than once we almost collided, trying to avoid people who ran into the street throwing up their arms, shouting, and grasping one another.

At home the house was in an uproar. Emmelina, who had been our housekeeper for as long as I could remember, stood in the kitchen marshaling delivery boys and three local women who had come in to help. In the dining room, her niece sat at the table. When I had come down that morning, I'd found the girl—a small, solid creature with eyes as black as river stones—polishing silver and arranging tiny spoons and flat-pronged forks in fans on the sideboard. Now she was folding white linen napkins, her square, blunt-fingered hands creasing them into triangles. On the terrace two men in blue overalls were setting up tables and chairs. A string quartet was coming. There would be dancing. In the driveway the grocer's old horse stood resting against the shafts of the cart that had been called back into service since gasoline had become too expensive for tradesmen to use.

Our mother was not in evidence. According to Emmelina, as soon as she heard the news, she had gone upstairs to "turn out Enrico's room." My older brother had recently taken up his commission in the army and was stationed outside Rome. Emmelina said Mama was absolutely certain that, with the war now over, his arrival was imminent. She had told Emmelina that his dinner jacket must be gotten out of his wardrobe and aired.

I didn't even bother to wash my face, much less change out of my rumpled, sticky dress. Instead I went straight to Papa's study. Inside, I closed the door and leaned against it, savoring the dark, cool room that smelled of my father. Of his books and his dusty papers. And of the acqua di colonia he wore and the faint, heady perfume of the cigar he allowed himself every Sunday afternoon.

I took a breath and wandered across the dark patterned carpet. There was a photograph of our mother on Papa's desk, a tall blond girl with a wide smile. It had been taken almost thirty years ago, but she did not look so very different. At fifty she was still a beautiful woman—strong-boned, with fine skin and the dark blue eyes she gave to all her children. Enrico and I had Papa's dark hair. It was from Mama that Isabella got her lion's mane.

Lodovico had cousins in Caserta, and I was sure—being close to Naples, which after all was his home port—that they would know where his ship was. I knew that it was due in, carrying its cargo of the maimed and dying. His last letter had promised that he would write or, if he could, telephone as soon as they arrived. But I couldn't wait. On the bicycle ride home, I had become gripped again by the absolute certainty that they'd been bombed. That the Germans must have attacked them at sea as soon as even a rumor of an armistice leaked out. I sat down in Papa's chair and picked up the telephone, my hand damp on the receiver. But all I could hear was a dead, empty buzzing.

Beyond the door, people tramped up and down the hall. I heard Emmelina fussing at her niece in the dining room. I put the receiver down, then tried and tried again. But on the one occasion I did get an operator, she assured me that it was futile. All of Florence, all of Italy, was trying to get a telephone line. It was past five o'clock when the door opened and Papa came in.

He stood with the light behind him, and I could sense rather than see his expression. My father was a professor at the university, a specialist in Boccaccio. He was, like almost everyone else we knew, anti-Fascist. And like all anti-Fascists across Italy, he'd felt the air move a little more easily in and out of his lungs since the twenty-fifth of July, the day Mussolini had gone. Papa had never been an agitator, or even what one might really call an activist. His resistance had instead been quiet—unflamboyant and rather sly. Still, the strain of it must have been considerable. One evening about a month ago, when we were sitting on the terrace, he had turned to me, his long face soft in the last light, and told me that he had never quite believed that the day would come. That he still felt surprised, as if he had found quite by accident that he'd been holding his breath for more than twenty years.

Now the straightness had gone out of his shoulders. His linen suit was as rumpled as my dress. Like my mother, my father had blue eyes. They were not as dark as hers, but they were wider, rounder. Behind the wire frames of his glasses, they looked like a child's eyes. Mama had said once that she married him because he looked like a poet. These days his hair was flecked with gray. It still fell over his forehead. He was in the habit of pushing it away as he spoke.

"Caterina?" The signet ring he wore on his left hand next to his wedding band caught the light that seeped through the half-open curtains.

"I've been trying to find Lodo."

I wasn't sure the words actually came out of my mouth. If they did, they were not much more than a whisper.

Papa closed the door and came into the room. He smiled, but sadness blurred his face. He leaned down and took the telephone out of my hand. My father placed the receiver gently in the cradle, then placed his hand on the top of my head, stroking the snarled tangle of my hair that had long since escaped its pins and the tortoiseshell clasp I had tried to tame it with.

"Tomorrow," he said. "If we don't hear from him tonight, we'll get word of him tomorrow."

I closed my eyes, my head resting against Papa's hip. The linen of his suit scratched against my cheek.

"Papa," I said finally.

"Yes, my love?"

"Are the Germans coming?"

"They're already here."

I knew I sounded like a child, like anything but a twenty-two-year-old woman who was about to be married, but I couldn't help myself.

I looked up at him. "No, I mean here," I said. "To Florence. Do you think we'll be occupied?"

For what seemed like a long time, my father didn't answer me. Then he said, "Yes, Cati. I should think we will."

That evening Isabella and I stood between our parents and greeted our guests as they arrived. Supper was served on the terrace by the women who had come in, all of them now in starched white aprons. Then, just before eight o'clock, the musicians stopped playing, more champagne was poured, and everyone moved into the sitting room to crowd around the big radio and listen to what we all already knew the prime minister was going to say. That the Italian government had asked the commander-in-chief of the Allied forces, General Eisenhower, for an armistice and that the request had been accepted.

There was dead silence as Badoglio spoke, his voice wavering from the radio. As a result, he said, Italian forces would immediately cease all acts of hostility toward the Allies.

Then the BBC announced that the Italian navy had been ordered to sail its ships immediately to the nearest Allied port. Standing beside me, Issa reached out and gripped my hand.

The quartet we had hired were four old men, their tailcoats and white ties impeccable and shiny with age. Not that you would have known it, because after the radio announcement the music became quite wild. High and fast, it was like Gypsy music, flung from the strings in bright, unraveling spools. Champagne corks popped. Down the hill in the city, the bells began to ring. A few minutes later, fireworks went off. Standing at the terrace wall, I watched the livid colors spiraling upward, snagging in the branches of the garden trees and tangling in the smattering of stars.

It was well past midnight before the terrace finally emptied. The guests flowed away, leaving nothing behind but tables covered with crumbs and drained glasses. A few of Papa's friends, colleagues from the university, stayed on. As I went up, I paused on the stairs, listening to their voices rise and fall, lapping like waves from behind the closed doors of his study. Part of me wanted to turn the handle and slip through into the safe, grave world of men's voices and cigar smoke. My father had always made me welcome, had always allowed any of us to join in his conversations. I paused. Then I realized I was too tired, and I slipped off my shoes and crept upstairs.

The curtains over the window at the end of the hall had been pulled, but light still seeped under my door. I pushed it open, realizing I must have left the dressing table lamp on, and almost tripped over Isabella's dress. She had shed it like a skin. Dropped it on the floor, then drifted into my bed. The covers were pulled up almost over her face. A floss of hair spread across the pillow.

Standing there holding my shoes, I didn't have the energy to be angry. Issa had done this when she was a child, floated from her bed to mine as if there were no real difference between the two. At least tonight she had left me some space. I bent down and picked up the dress. It was her favorite, an iridescent blue shot with green. The silk came from Como. Mama had picked it out. The bolt she chose for me was copper bronze. With my skin, Mama said, with my hair I couldn't wear green. Even blue I should beware of. My colors were autumnal. Bronze, copper. Occasionally scarlet. I hadn't said anything, but I didn't like my dresses. I didn't want to wear the colors of dying leaves. I, too, wanted to be a peacock.

Smoothing the skirt, I eased open the wardrobe and slipped the dress onto a hanger. Then I opened my bureau drawer and saw that Issa had helped herself to one of my nightgowns. My trousseau was locked away—otherwise she would probably have rifled that, too. Belongings didn't really exist for my sister. She simply picked up what she liked.

Looking at her nestled in my bed wearing my nightgown, I wondered if Isabella would ever be forced to grow up. Probably not, I thought. Probably she would be one of those people who lived forever with the special privileges allowed to youngest children—the charm and skills bred of indulgence or just plain exhaustion. It was a joke in our family that Issa could get away with anything.

I was brushing my hair when I felt her watching me.

"Are you scared?"

Looking at her face in the mirror, I put down my brush. Then I stood up and cracked the window and closed the shutter. "Yes," I said. "Move over."

She wiggled sideways, and I climbed into bed. I threw my head down on the pillow and yanked the blanket. Issa waited a moment, then yanked it back and laughed, the sound, high and bright, sparking in the darkness.

By the time I woke up the next morning, Issa was gone. I lay in bed feeling the echo of her in the room and watching the sunlight slide through the shutters. I'd been dreaming of Lodovico. I'd heard his voice. Seen him smile. As I woke up, he was walking toward me in his officer's uniform. I closed my eyes and tried to summon him back, to feel the touch of his hands. Then I remembered and leaped out of bed.

Downstairs, the debris of the party was still scattered about—dirty glasses, cigarettes stubbed out in ashtrays. I glanced at the hall clock. It was past nine on a Thursday morning. Papa and Issa would have left for the university ages ago. I could hear a dim murmur of voices from behind the kitchen door. The radio. I skirted the dining room table and pushed through the door.

My mother was standing in the middle of the room. Like me, she was still wearing her dressing gown.

"Mama?" I asked, my eyes straying to the counter where the radio sat. "What's going on? What's happening?"

All of us—Issa, Rico, and I—had learned over the years that our mother was not someone to turn to for reassurance. That Papa was the one who could be relied on to chase monsters from under the bed and thwack through the bushes to prove that Count Dracula was not in fact at the bottom of the garden.

Mama looked from the radio to me. "The Allies have landed at Salerno."


"Late last night," she said. "Early this morning. It's still going on."

So it had happened. I sat down suddenly, rocking the kitchen chair. As the voices had been lapping to and fro in Papa's study, as I had been yanking the blanket with Issa and dreaming of Lodovico, the invasion—the real invasion—had begun.

After university I had started training as a nurse. But my skills were not such that I was in much demand at the hospital, so it had not been much of a problem to get two days off for Mama's party. Once we'd recovered from the news of the invasion and Emmelina arrived, with her niece in tow to do "the heavy work," I spent my day half helping to tidy the house but mostly hovering around the telephone. I still could not get a line, and no calls came in. Nervous as cats, Mama and I started every time we heard something in the street. We darted to the windows in case it was Enrico, or Lodo, or someone with a telegram. But the only people who came were the men who folded up the tables and took away the chairs, and for the most part they were morose and silent. Yesterday people had been jubilant, almost giddy. Now a watchful, almost sullen mood had set in. All day long the radio babbled.

Papa and Isabella finally came home, much later than usual. As we sat down to dinner, they recited the news of the day. But by then Mama and I had already heard it. The Germans had moved faster than anyone expected. In little more than twelve hours they had occupied Padua, Bologna, Verona. Milan would be next. Then us.

No one knew what was happening in Salerno, exactly, but Papa had spoken to colleagues who insisted they could hear the guns from Rome. Everyone expected another landing, possibly at Ostia, or even farther north, on the Argentario, or at Livorno. Badoglio and the king apparently really had vanished—signed the armistice and fled Rome. Despite his best efforts, Papa had not been able to find out anything more about the navy. There was no news about the movement of specific ships. He had not been able to get a line to Naples, nor had he been able to get any news of Enrico. Rumor said that the divisions based around Rome would attempt to defend the city, but as the country appeared to have no government, no one knew who would be in command.

On hearing this last piece of information, Mama, who had left her plate untouched, got up from the table abruptly. From the sitting room we heard the snap of the bar door, the clink of a glass and a bottle. After that, Papa stopped talking and pushed his food back and forth. I cut a potato into pieces, smaller and smaller and smaller. Only Isabella ate, methodically and without speaking, like a horse.

She was, she informed me after dinner, going out with a group of her friends, to a "meeting." When I asked her what it was about, she shrugged and said, "Nothing." Which I suspected meant a visit to one of the cafés around Piazza San Marco. I had joined these outings once or twice. But most of Issa's friends were from the university's mountaineering club—she shared that particular passion with both my father and my brother—and on the whole they were rather too hale and hearty for me.

"Answer the door, will you?" Issa said. "If Massimo comes? I just need my coat."

"You're going with Massimo?"

We were standing in the hall. She shrugged as she started up the stairs. "We all are," she said. "He has a car."

And gasoline to put in it, I thought. I had met Massimo once or twice. He was a year or so ahead of Issa at the university—in engineering, which was presumably how he had gotten out of being sent off to die for his country. His family came from somewhere around Siena and owned land, rather a lot of it. He was a beefy fellow, loud and opinionated, with a rather self-conscious booming laugh. The others had treated him with a certain amount of awe. I suspected he was used to getting what he wanted. Including fuel.

The doorbell rang, and I opened it obediently, wondering if Papa knew what Issa was up to.

Massimo stood on the doorstep with his hat in his hand. He looked a bit more subdued than I had remembered him. At least he'd cut his mood to suit the occasion.

"Caterina." He took my hand as I invited him in, standing half in the open doorway. Behind him I could see the shape of a car in the drive and hear voices rustling in the warm night.

Massimo gave a little bow. "I hear," he said, "that congratulations are in order. You are getting married. A doctor?"

He raised his eyebrows, as if I had just bagged an unexpectedly large deer.


"Your fiancé is very lucky."

"Thank you. He's in a very dangerous position. As an officer," I said suddenly, sounding prissy, even to myself. "In the navy."

I don't know why I added the last remark, probably to highlight the fact that Massimo wasn't—in the army or the navy or anything else, except the mountaineering club. And was therefore in no danger at all, from anything, except possibly twisted ankles. If he heard the insult, he was gentleman enough to ignore it.

Instead he smiled again and said, "Then he matched his good taste and courage in choosing someone as beautiful as you."

I blushed, feeling as bad as I am sure he intended me to. And probably as I deserved.

Massimo had extravagantly lashed, rather pale eyes. Just then they flicked away from me, over my shoulder, to Isabella, who was coming down the stairs.

"Hello," she said, and Massimo's charm, so evident moments before, deserted him. Looking at her, he was simply tongue-tied.

Issa shrugged into her coat. "I won't be late," she told me, although I hadn't asked. Then she slipped past Massimo and down the front steps, and they were gone.


On Sale
Jan 15, 2013
Page Count
640 pages

Lucretia Grindle

About the Author

Lucretia Grindle was born in Boston, Massachusetts, and grew up spending half her time in the United States and half her time in the U.K. Continuing as she started out, she still splits her time, but now calls the coast of Maine home.

Learn more about this author