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  • Published: 3 September 2024
  • ISBN: 9781761344404
  • Imprint: Penguin
  • Format: Trade Paperback
  • Pages: 480
  • RRP: $34.99

The Venice Hotel

Extract

Prologue

She stood above him while the air left his body in a low, final exhale. She never considered herself to be a violent person; in fact, she prized her gentleness. It made her feel superior. But that moral high ground collapsed beneath her when he died.

Now she’s been forced to rethink what she’s capable of. Murder, apparently. This new understanding is an epiphany of sorts, one that’s come to her on the twelfth day of Christmas. Because life’s funny like that.

Would her actions be the same if she had her time over? Unquestionably. She’d gleefully watch the canals of Venice run red with his blood, over and over again.

That’s who she is now.

 

On the FIRST DAY of CHRISTMAS

Loretta

The woman is drowning. She stands tall inside a glass tank so narrow that her shoulders almost touch its sides. Her hair and dress are both long, flowing and white. Her bare feet are submerged in water and the hem of her flimsy dress swirls in it. Loretta has heard that the water is from the canal, but it’s only a rumour. By the looks of it, though, she suspects it’s true.

A small metal sign rests on the pavers in front of the tank. It bears a solitary word, engraved in a scrawling black font: ‘affogando’.

‘What does affogando mean?’ an American teenager, standing close to Loretta on the steps of the piazza, asks her mother. She mispronounces it.

‘No idea.’ The mother breathes steam.

Loretta clears her throat. ‘It means “drowning”. She is telling us she is drowning.’

‘Ah,’ the mother says. ‘Aren’t we all?’

The teenager turns her back to the performance artist and the Basilica di San Marco. She holds her phone up above her head, purses her swollen, glossed lips together and arches her thickly pencilled brows. Her mother copies the pose. The pouting duo are surrounded by grey: the grey stones of the ground and buildings and archways, the grey clouds above.

Alberto nudges Loretta in the ribs. ‘Shall we take a photo too?’ he says in Italian.

‘What for?’

‘I don’t know, because it’s Christmas. Why not?’ He smiles.

She ignores the request, indicating with her chin at the artist. ‘Look at her, she’s freezing. Her hands are trembling.’

It’s one of the coldest Christmas Days on record.

‘She recognises you,’ Alberto says.

Loretta knows this. She’s always being recognised. She’s been a cover model for Vogue and a guest on too many TV shows to name. But does the artist recognise her or remember her? That’s what she really wants to know.

As she’s considering this, Loretta’s fingers glide across a short bristly hair on her neck. She curses inwardly. Even after she plucked half-a-dozen nuisance hairs in front of the magnified mirror on her dressing table early this morning, already here’s a new one announcing itself, reminding her that she’s old now. She pinches the hair between her thumb and index finger and gives it a few sharp tugs, but it remains stubbornly attached.

Alberto’s loud breathing annoys her. Even here, in the crowded piazza, she can’t escape the sound of his shallow, wheezy breaths. How she wishes he’d quit the cigarettes. She turns to look at him, standing a head shorter than her in his black bowler hat that hides his evergrowing bald patch, hands tucked deep into the pockets of his woollen trench. His face is tired, his skin blotched and yellowing.

He meets her eye. ‘Andiamo, cara?’ There’s a warmth in the way he looks at her that softens her resentment.

‘Let’s go.’ She hooks her arm into his.

The artist hasn’t taken her eyes off Loretta, despite tourists milling about between them. Loretta gives her a small wave as she walks away. She thinks the woman returns her smile but she can’t be certain.

The streets leading back to Hotel Il Cuore are heaving. The souvenir shops are packed with tourists admiring their colourful glass baubles, and the cafe crowds overflow to outdoors despite the cold. Christmas decorations strung high across the lanes form a canopy over Loretta and Alberto as they walk. The hanging lights get more extravagant each year. Every street is different.

‘I wonder when the food writer will arrive,’ Loretta says, more to herself than to Alberto.

‘It’s strange how she’s turning up on Christmas Day,’ he replies. ‘On her own.’

‘She’s coming for work. Of course she’s on her own.’

‘It’s not right. She should be with family at this time of year.’

‘Some people don’t think like that.’

‘Not everyone is as lucky as we are.’ Alberto pats her hand. ‘We’ll make her feel less lonely.’

‘Why do you assume she’s lonely?’

‘She’s travelling alone halfway across the world at Christmas. Of course she’s lonely.’

Loretta doesn’t argue.

A young tourist couple walks past them and the woman’s expression changes to one of stupefied delight when she makes eye contact with Loretta. It’s not often that Loretta leaves the hotel without her sunglasses on, but occasionally, on days like today, she longs to see the outside world not through a darkened lens.

‘Oh my God, babe!’ the woman squeals after they pass. ‘I swear that was Signora Bianchi!’

Alberto and Loretta exchange a smile and keep walking. He sings ‘Silent Night’ and she listens.

Back at the hotel, Marina stands red-faced behind the reception desk.

Loretta hurries to her. ‘Can I help?’ She smiles at their new guests, the Dawsons, who stand on the opposite side of the desk.

‘It would be good if someone helps.’ The sweat drips from Signore Dawson’s bushy white eyebrows onto his ‘I love Venice’ sweatshirt.

Loretta reaches for the remote control and resets the temperature in the foyer. Marina’s overdone it with the heating.

‘Signore Dawson was unhappy with Signore Giuseppe’s singing on the gondola ride.’ Marina’s smile doesn’t reach her eyes.

It’s hard for Loretta not to snort.

‘We paid a small fortune for that singer and all we got out of it is a thumping headache for my wife.’ Signore Dawson’s crossed arms rest on his belly.

‘One minute please, signore. I’ll be happy to assist.’ Loretta takes off her coat and says quietly to Marina in Italian, ‘Go, go. I can take over from here.’

‘You haven’t had your rest upstairs yet. I can handle it.’ Marina twirls one of her long dark curls around her finger, a habit she’s had since she was a small girl.

‘The artist in the tank has arrived. Go and see before she freezes solid. I’ll take care of this idiot.’ She pushes Marina lightly in the back.

‘Okay, grazie, Mamma.’ Marina scoops up her jacket and bag and practically jogs across the carpeted lobby to the glass front doors.

Loretta reaches inside her turtleneck for the gold chain she wears. From it dangles a medallion of the Madonna cradling baby Jesus to her bosom. It was a gift from Nonna, given to her when she was nine years old, on the morning of her first Holy Communion.

‘The Blessed Virgin always listens. She’ll never fail you if you remember her. Do you hear me, Loretta? Promise me, you’ll remember to pray.’ Nonna gripped Loretta’s shoulders with her knobbly fingers until she made the promise.

But Nonna was mistaken. The Blessed Virgin has failed Loretta many times since that day. Still, out of habit, she holds the pendant and silently prays. Ave o Maria, piena di grazia

‘Signora Bianchi? Signora Bianchi! You gonna help us out or not?’ Signore Dawson’s face is inches away from hers.

‘Yes, of course, signore. I was only thinking of how to fix the problem. You see, this is the first complaint we have ever received about Signore Giuseppe. He is one of the most respected singers in all of San Marco.’

‘The best singer,’ Alberto interjects from behind her.

She gives him a pointed look. ‘The kitchen bin needs emptying.’

Alberto laughs and disappears into the kitchen.

Turning back to the guests, Loretta lets go of the pendant. ‘I will be sure to give the gondola company your feedback. In the meantime, because you booked the ride through us, I will arrange a full refund from the hotel for you immediately. Is this satisfactory?’

Signora Dawson, a short, thick woman with a close crop of white curls, who wears a matching ‘I love Venice’ sweatshirt, gives her husband a quick nod. She keeps her eyes downcast and her face is flushed. Loretta’s struck by how startlingly blue Signora Dawson’s eyeshadow is and how heavily it’s caked on.

‘Yes, yes, that’ll do,’ il signore says. ‘And let the company know that for one of the most respected singers, I sing better in the shower.’

Loretta doubts this is true, but she nods. When the old couple leaves, she wakes the computer to search for their guest file.

‘Che succede, Mamma?’ Rocco appears from the kitchen, smiling. He’s always smiling, Rocco. It’s one of the things about her son she loves the most.

‘I’m crediting an account for a hundred and seventy euro. Giuseppe’s singing wasn’t good enough for our guest, apparently.’

‘L’Americano?’

‘Who else?’ She brings up the Dawsons’ account.

‘This morning at breakfast he complained his wife had a headache because the walls of the dining room are too pink.’

‘I heard.’ Loretta rolls her eyes. ‘It seems like everything in San Marco gives that woman a headache. Take a small cheese plate to their room for me, will you? Tell them it’s on the house, for Christmas. It might slow down the complaints.’

‘Okay, and I won’t hum anywhere near them, or he might request a refund for their entire stay here.’

‘Yes, be careful.’ She laughs.

She begrudgingly credits the Dawsons’ account and then responds to two email enquiries. Alberto comes back from the kitchen and stands behind her. His breathing is louder and faster than normal, instantly irritating her.

‘Listen to you.’ She keeps her eyes on the screen. ‘Keep on smoking, it’s doing you good.’

‘I don’t feel good.’

‘I was being sarcastic.’

‘Loretta,’ he pants, his voice strangled.

She whips her head around to see him leaning on the desk. His face is shiny with sweat. ‘What is it? What’s wrong?’

He gasps and shakes his head.

She clutches his arm. ‘Tell me what’s wrong!’

His knees buckle and he lands in a crumpled heap on the floor.

‘Alberto!’ she screams. ‘Alberto!’ She drops to her knees and turns him over onto his back. He’s a dead weight; his eyes are shut. The loud breathing has come to a sudden stop.

Is he breathing at all? She can’t tell. ‘Rocco! Help!’

She grabs his flaccid arm and feels his wrist for a pulse. Is there one? She’s not sure.

‘Rocco!’ she cries again.

Rocco comes running down the stairs. ‘Papà!’

‘Call the ambulance!’ she shouts at him. ‘Quick!’

Rocco lunges for the phone and hurriedly gives the operator their details.

Is he dead? Santa Maria, is he dead?

‘Is he dead?’ she yells at Rocco.

‘I don’t know, Mamma. I don’t know.’

She looks over her shoulder towards the front door for Marina, willing her to come back.

A growing crowd of hotel guests gathers in the lobby.

Alberto doesn’t move.

‘Have you called an ambulance?’ someone asks.

‘Does anyone know first aid?’ another says.

‘Resuscitation!’ Loretta shouts at them. ‘Who knows how to do resuscitation?’

The guests shake their heads and mumble apologies.

‘I’m going to resuscitate him,’ she says to Rocco.

‘Do you know how?’

‘No.’

She tilts Alberto’s head back, pulls opens his slack mouth and lowers her lips to his. He tastes of stale cigarettes. She breathes a ragged breath into his mouth as hard as she can and then again. How many breaths should she give him? She does it three more times.

‘Compress his heart,’ she orders Rocco.

Rocco moves around to Alberto’s other side and with shaking hands he pushes over the centre of Alberto’s chest. ‘I don’t know what I’m doing.’ The tears pool behind his glasses.

‘Keep going. A few more.’ She takes a deep breath in and meets Alberto’s lips again.

Together, she and Rocco cycle through the breaths and compressions. Alberto remains deathly still.

She’s fast getting short of breath; her head starts to swim. Don’t stop, she tells herself as the fatigue escalates. Don’t stop.

‘I’m a doctor.’ A new hotel guest from this morning, a young Australian man, Signore Taylor, looms large above her. ‘What happened?’

‘I don’t know. I don’t know! He said he was unwell, then he collapsed.’ She shuffles out of his way.

Signore Taylor kneels down next to her and leans his ear close to Alberto’s mouth. ‘You’ve called for the ambulance, yeah?’

‘Yes.’

‘Has he eaten anything he could be allergic to? Any alcohol or drugs?’ He holds up Alberto’s arm and feels for his pulse.

He asks his questions fast, so she answers fast. ‘He is not allergic to anything, no. He had one glass of red wine with lunch. No drugs, never drugs.’

‘Does he have a history of stroke or cardiac arrest?’ he asks.

‘No.’

‘Any other medical conditions?’

‘No.’ She swallows. ‘He smokes.’

‘I can tell.’ Signore Taylor lifts Alberto’s eyelids one at a time and shines his phone torch in his eyes. Alberto’s pupils are dilated. ‘I’ll do CPR until the ambulance arrives,’ he says.

‘You are a doctor?’ She needs to hear him say it again.

‘Neurosurgeon.’

Grazie a Dio.

The doctor immediately gives Alberto two short sharp breaths. She watches as her husband’s chest rises and falls. Then the doctor presses firmly and with absolute confidence over Alberto’s heart, many more times than Rocco did, before he gives him another two breaths and then repeats the compressions. He’s calm and measured. This wonderful man, with the face of an angel, knows exactly what he’s doing.

Rocco wraps his arm around Loretta, and they stay huddled on the floor as the doctor counts out loud once again to thirty, pushing down hard on Alberto’s chest with each count.

Loretta stares at a stain on the carpet near Alberto’s head.

Dio, I beg you to save my Alberto. Let me hear his laugh again. Let me hear him sing again. I promise I’ll be good if you spare him. Alberto’s smiling face on their wedding day flashes through her mind, how proud he was to be standing across from her at the altar.

She prays until the paisley patterns on the carpet begin to swirl and then she blinks. She looks up at the murmuring crowd and locks eyes briefly with the Signora Taylor, the doctor’s young wife, who stands close by. The size of her, Gesù Cristo. What an odd couple they make, the husband looks like a runway model with his chiselled features. Even in her distress, Loretta can’t help but notice how piercingly blue his eyes are.

‘I think he’s breathing.’ The doctor places his ear close to Alberto’s mouth again. ‘Yep. He’s breathing.’

‘He will be okay?’ Rocco touches Alberto’s shoulder.

‘I don’t know. What’s his name?’

‘Alberto,’ Rocco replies.

The doctor shakes Alberto roughly by the shoulders. ‘Alberto! Can you hear me? Alberto! Wake up!’

Alberto’s head lolls about.

‘He’s not waking up,’ Loretta whispers to Rocco as the doctor shakes him again.

Then Alberto’s wheeze is back. Loretta’s never been so happy to hear it.

The next minutes pass in a blur. The paramedics arrive, pushing past the onlookers. They speak in English to the doctor, who wipes the sweat away from his forehead. He commands the room with his height and broad shoulders and his deep voice.

‘You saved his life, dottore. Bravo.’ The female paramedic, a petite brunette, bats her eyelids at him.

The paramedics test Alberto’s blood pressure and oxygen levels. They shake him again. ‘Alberto, wake up!’

He moans but his eyes stay closed as he breathes wheezy unsteady breaths.

‘Signora, we’re taking him to the hospital. There’s only room for the patient on the boat,’ the male paramedic tells her.

‘I’ll walk,’ she replies.

Rocco helps Loretta to her feet and they hug tightly. He’s still shaking and so is she.

Loretta turns to thank the doctor but he’s nowhere to be seen.

A stretcher is brought in, and Alberto’s loaded onto it and carried towards the back of the hotel, which opens onto the canal where the ambulance awaits. She squeezes Alberto’s floppy hand as the paramedics roll away the stretcher. Does he know what’s happening? Is he suffering?

She doesn’t release his hand until she has to.

Once Alberto’s taken away, some of the guests come forward and offer her and Rocco words of comfort. Rocco eases through the crowd, shielding her.

It’s only when the onlookers are behind them that Loretta sees the nun standing by herself, in front of the big Christmas tree in the centre of the lobby. The nun is dressed in a tan habit and black veil, a wisp of greyish-blonde hair escaping near her ear. She looks directly at Loretta, her head tilted sideways, a shy, almost questioning smile on her lips.

For a moment Loretta worries it isn’t just Alberto whose heart will stop today. She holds her palm against the thudding in her chest and takes shaky steps towards the nun until there’s almost no gap between them. She has to stop herself from reaching out to touch the other woman’s face, to make sure she isn’t an apparition. ‘Flavia?’ Loretta’s voice is hoarse. ‘Is it really you?’

‘I haven’t heard my birth name for decades.’ Flavia’s smile grows. ‘Hello, Loretta. How are you?’

Loretta can’t find the words to respond. Everything around her fades away. All she can see is Flavia.

‘I haven’t timed my arrival very well, have I? I’m sorry.’ Flavia wrings her hands. ‘Was that your husband? I hope he’ll be okay.’

‘What are you doing here?’

Flavia lets out a small laugh. It’s been thirty-six years since Loretta last heard that laugh but it still has the same effect on her. ‘Isn’t it obvious?’ Flavia says softly. ‘I’m here for you.’

Loretta is unable to stop staring, bewitched by Flavia’s hazel eyes, her full lips. Her beauty hasn’t diminished even a tiny bit with age.

Rocco steps up next to them. ‘Buon Natale, Suora.’ He addresses Flavia with a respectful nod, before turning to Loretta. ‘Mamma, do you need me to fetch you anything for the hospital?’

Her son’s presence reminds Loretta of where she is, of whose wife she is. She’s suddenly aware of herself swooning as if Alberto’s life isn’t hanging in the balance. Who knows if he’s even still breathing.

‘Bring me my handbag,’ she tells Rocco. ‘I need my phone too. And pack my glasses.’

When Rocco jogs away, she lifts her chin and looks Flavia in the eye. ‘If you’ve come for me, you’re late. Thirty-six years late.’ She strides away from the nun.

‘Loretta!’ Flavia calls.

She stops but doesn’t turn.

‘I’m staying at San Zaccaria, at the rectory there.’ Flavia’s voice carries across the lobby.

Loretta continues towards the hotel entrance without a backwards glance. Outside, in the freezing Venetian air, she tucks her hand inside her top for the comfort of the medallion. It’s true there have been many times Loretta has felt abandoned by the Blessed Virgin, but she fervently believes that Santa Maria won’t fail her today. The Madonna has already shown herself by delivering the angel-faced doctor to save Alberto’s life.

Loretta holds tightly onto the pendant and prays to the Blessed Virgin to follow through by making sure Alberto recovers well.

She walks quickly towards the hospital. It’s only when her teeth start to chatter that she realises she left without her coat and without even waiting for Rocco to bring her handbag. She keeps walking regardless, away from the woman who abandoned her to the man she hopes won’t.


The Venice Hotel Tess Woods

Set over the twelve days of Christmas at a boutique Venice hotel, this deliciously twisty novel by acclaimed Australian author is ideal for fans of Nine Perfect Strangers and The White Lotus.

Buy now
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