Wednesday 28 February 2024

New! Captives and Creatures: Six Medieval Romances. FREE Read with Kindle Unlimited

Six romantic stories, sensual and sometimes spicy, tales woven into medieval settings and now brought together in one volume.

Sebastian is an alchemist and neither handsome nor good-tempered, but when Melissa, daughter of his sworn enemy, falls into his hands as a war-prize, he finds himself beginning to change.

Valens makes arrows but is also a spy for Sebastian. Katherine is a young mother with a baby, kidnapped from a camp of women as a wetnurse for Valens’ dead sisters’ child. Katherine and Valens fall for each other, but can she trust him?

Julian, a northern sheriff, has the king’s trust and the loyalty of his men, but since the death of his wife he has been angry, plagued by nightmares, resentful, and wanting no other woman. Then he meets the mute Marian, the abused victim of outlaws, and knows her as a kindred soul. With help and love, can they both heal their wounds?

Morcar the Earl is a pagan, hated by the Norman Bishop Cyril. Cyril and his bastard son Gaspar plot to unseat Morcar and kidnap his

son Thorfinn to raise as a puppet manipulated by Cyril. Morcar is overcome and flung into a cave chained to a young woman, the witch Hemlock. Can they work together to escape? Can they recover Thorfinn? In the end, what future can there be between an earl and a witch?

Sir Gawain, poor, thoughtless and eager for glory, is on a quest to catch a unicorn. His reluctant companion, the virgin dairy-maid Matilde, hates the nobility and her fiery response to his attempts to discipline her leads to mutual respect, then fondness, even perhaps to love. When Matilde is taken by outlaws, Gawain realizes what she means to him and rides in hope of rescuing her. And the unicorn? The unicorn, too, has a part to play…

The youngest of nine sons, Jesse is amiable, chivalrous and used to coming last. Becoming a knight through his own efforts, he encounters a beautiful, virtually naked stranger in the countryside above the farmlands of his old home. Who is she and how can he help her? Jesse finds himself tested by the girl, by her unlovely family, and by the realisation that neither flaxen-haired maidens nor fire-breathing dragons are always what they seem.

609 pages 


FREEREAD on Amazon KU 

Amazon Com.

Amazon Co UK 

 Many of these stories also feature Magnus and Elfrida, the knight and the with from my novels The Snow Bride and A Summer Bewitchment. 

The Snow Bride: 
To buy on Amazon

#Escape into #Romance & #Magic with A SUMMER BEWITCHMENT (THE Knight & the Witch 2)  UK

Here's an opening excerpt from the first two of the stories from Captives and Creatures: 


Sebastian the Alchemist and His Captive 


Sebastian settled back in his chair. He still had many petitions to read and tomorrow he would fight a duel, with mace and daggers, but for the rest of the evening…Yes, he could grant himself the time, the indulgence. Ignoring the dull ache in his lower back, he stretched his long arms above his head.





Valens the Fletcher and His Captive

England, Summer 1132


Valens heard the girl he had chosen as booty before he saw her. Crawling beneath the luxuriant low-hanging hazel branches and over the stinging nettles and ruthless brambles toward the women’s summer camp, he heard her weary, patient whisper. “Come on, Jack, feed for me, sweetheart. That’s right, that’s right. Good boy…”



 You can read the rest for just 99 cents/78p 

Sunday 17 December 2023

Christmas Read, Christmas Romance. The Snow Bride - a Medieval Historical Romance Novel



#HistoricalRomance - a passionate read, and full of suspense. Grab a copy of "The Snow Bride" now. #fiction #warrior #witch #romance #romantic #medieval #FREEReadKU

The Snow Bride


She is Beauty, but is he the Beast?


Book One of The Knight and the Witch



England, winter, 1131


Elfrida, spirited, caring and beautiful, is also alone. She is the witch of the woods and no man dares to ask for her hand in marriage until a beast comes stalking brides and steals away her sister. Desperate, the lovely Elfrida offers herself as a sacrifice, as bridal bait, and she is seized by a man with fearful scars. Is he the beast?



In the depths of a frozen midwinter, in the heart of the woodland, Sir Magnus, battle-hardened knight of the Crusades, searches ceaselessly for three missing brides, pitting his wits and weapons against a nameless stalker of the snowy forest. Disfigured and hideously scarred, Magnus has finished with love, he thinks, until he rescues a fourth 'bride', the beautiful, red-haired Elfrida, whose innocent touch ignites in him a fierce passion that satisfies his deepest yearnings and darkest desires.






Elfrida stirred sluggishly, unable to remember where she was. Her back ached, and the rest of her body burned. She opened her eyes and sat up with a jerk, thinking of Christina.



Her head felt to be bobbing like an acorn cup in a stream, and her vision swam. As she tried to swing her legs, her sense of dizzy falling increased, becoming worse as she closed her eyes. She lashed out in the darkness, her flailing hands and feet connecting with straw, dusty hay, and ancient pelts.


“Christina?” she hissed, listening intently and praying now that the monster had brought her to the same place it had taken her sister.


She heard nothing but her own breath, and when she held that, nothing at all.


“Christina?” Fearing to reach out in this blackness that was more than night and dreading what she might find, Elfrida forced herself to stretch her arms. She trailed her fingers out into the ghastly void, tracing the unseen world with trembling hands.


Her body shook more than her hands, but she ignored the shuddering of her limbs, closed her eyes like a blind man, and searched.


She lay on a pallet, she realized, full of crackling, dry grass. When she scented and tasted the air, there was no blood. She did not share the space with grisly corpses.


I am alone and unfettered. Now her heart had stopped thudding in her ears, she listened again, hearing no one else. Chanting a charm to see in the dark, she tried again to shift her feet.


Light spilled into her eyes like scalding milk as a door opened and a massive figure lurched across the threshold. Elfrida launched herself at freedom, hurling a fistful of straw at the looming beast and ducking out for the light.


She fell instead, her legs buckling, her last sight that of softly falling snow.




* * * *




Magnus gathered the woman before she pitched facedown into the snow, returning her swiftly to the rough bed within the hut. Her tiny, bird-boned form terrified him. Clutching her was like ripping a fragile wood anemone up from its roots.


And she had fought him, wind-flower or not. She had charged at him.


“I wish, lass, that you would listen to me. I am not the Forest Grendel, nor have wish to be, nor ever have been.”


Just as earlier, in the clearing where he had first come upon her, a brilliant shock of life and color in a white, dead world, the woman gave no sign of hearing. She was cold again, freezing, while in his arms she had steamed with fever. He tugged off his cloak and bundled her into it, then piled his firewood and kindling onto the bare hearth.


A few strikes of his flints and he had a fire. He set snow to melt in the helmet he was using as a cauldron. He swept more dusty hay up from the floor and, sneezing, packed it round the still little figure.


No beast on two or four legs would hunt tonight, so that was one worry less. Finding this lean-to hut in the forest had been a godsend, but it would be cold.


Magnus went back out into the snow and led his horse into the hut, spreading what feed he had brought with him. He kept the door shut with his saddle, rubbed the palfrey down with the bay’s own horse blanket, and looked about for a lantern.


There was none, just as there were no buckets, nor wooden bowls hanging from the eaves. But, abandoned as it surely had been, the place was well roofed, and no snow swirled in through the wood and wattle walls. Whistling, Magnus dug through his pack and found a flask of ale, some hard cheese, two wizened apples, and a chunk of dark rye bread. He spoke softly to his horse, then looked again at the woman.


She was breathing steadily now, and her lips and cheeks had more color. By the glittering, rising fire he saw her as he had first in the forest clearing, an elf-child of beauty and grace, a willing sacrifice to the monster. Kneeling beside her, he longed to stroke her vivid red hair and kiss the small dimple in her chin. In sleep she had the calm, flawless face of a Madonna of Outremer and the bright locks of a Magdalene.


He had guessed who she was—the witch of the three villages, the good witch driven to desperation. Coming upon her in that snowfield, tied between two trees like a crucified child of fairy, his temper had been a black storm against the villagers for sparing their skins by flaying hers. Then he had seen her face, recognized that wild, stark, sunken-cheeked grief, seen the loose bonds and the terrible “feast,” and had understood.


Another young woman has been taken by the beast, someone you love.


She—Elfrida, that was her name, he remembered it now—Elfrida was either very foolish or very powerful, to offer herself as bait.


Published August 15th by Prairie Rose Publications

FREE to read with Kindle Umlinted.

To buy on Amazon



Here’s another excerpt from THE SNOW BRIDE, showing Elfrida, a medieval witch and Magnus, a warrior. I deliberately wrote it so Elfrida was powerful in magic but not invulnerable. Hence her catching chicken-pox and being feverish as a result.




Magnus was worried. The fire he had made should have brought his people. It was an old signal, well-known between them. His men should have reached the village by now—that had been the arrangement. They were bringing traps and provisions in covered wagons, and hunting dogs and horses. He had been impatient to start his pursuit of the Forest Grendel and so rode ahead, returning with the messenger until that final stretch when the man turned off to his home. He had ridden on alone, finding the wayside shrine.

But from then, all had gone awry. Instead of the monster, he had found an ailing witch, and the snowstorm had lost him more tracks and time.

Magnus shook his head, turning indulgent eyes to the small, still figure on the rough pallet. At least the little witch had slept through the night and day, snug and safe, and he had been able to make her a litter from woven branches. He would give his fire signal a little longer and then return Elfrida to her village. There he might find someone who could translate between them.

Perhaps she did have power, for even as he looked at her, she sat up, the hood of her cloak falling away, and stared at him in return. She said something, then repeated it, and he drew in a great gulp of cold air in sheer astonishment, then laughed.

“I know what you said!” He wanted to kiss her, spots and all.

He burst into a clumsy canter, dragging his peg leg a little and almost tumbling onto her bed. She caught him by the shoulders and tried to steady him but collapsed under his weight.

They finished in an untidy heap on the pallet, with Elfrida hissing by his ear, “Why have you done such a foolish thing as to burn all our fuel?”

He rolled off her, knocked snow off his front and beard, and said in return, “How did you know I would know the old speech, the old English?”

“I dream true, and I dreamed this.” She was blushing, though not, he realized quickly, from shyness.

“Why burn so wildly?” she burst out, clearly furious. “You have wasted it! All that good wood gone to ash!”

“My men know my sign and will come now the storm has gone.” He had not expected thanks or soft words, but he was not about to be scolded by this red-haired nag.

“That is your plan, Sir Magnus? To burn half the forest to alert your troops?”

“A wiser plan than yours, madam, setting yourself as bait. Or had your village left you hanging there, perhaps to nag the beast to death?”

Her face turned as scarlet as the fire. “So says any witless fool! ’Tis too easy a charge men make against women, any woman who thinks and acts for herself. And no man orders me!”

Magnus swallowed the snort of laughter filling up his throat. He doubted she saw any amusement in their finally being able to speak to each other only to quarrel. Had she been a man or a lad, he would have knocked her into the snow, then offered a drink of mead, but such rough fellowship was beyond him here.

“And how would you have fought off any knave, or worse, that found you?” he asked patiently. “You did not succeed with me.”

“There are better ways to vanquish a male than brute force. I knew what I was about!”

“Truly? You were biding your time? And the pox makes you alluring?”

“Says master gargoyle! My spots will pass!”

“Or did you plan to scatter a few herbs, perhaps?”

He thought he heard her clash her teeth together. “I did not plan my sickness, and I do not share my secrets! Had you not snatched me away, had you not interfered, I would know where the monster lives. I would have found my sister! I would be with her!” Her voice hitched, and a look of pain and dread crossed her face. “We would be together. Whatever happens, I would be with her.”

“This was Christina?”

“Is Christina, not was, never was! I know she lives!”

Magnus merely nodded, his temper cooling rapidly as he marked how her color had changed and her body shook. A desperate trap to recover a much-loved sister excused everything, to his way of thinking.

She called you a gargoyle! This piqued his vanity and pride.

But she does not think you the monster, Magnus reminded himself in a dazzled, shocked wonder, embracing that knowledge like a lover.


Published August 15th by Prairie Rose Publications

FREE to read with Kindle Umlinted.

To buy on Amazon




“How are the spots? Itching yet?”

Elfrida gave a faint shudder. “Do not remind me.” Since stirring, she had been aware of her whole body tickling and burning. Mark’s idea of rolling in the snow might not be so bad.

“Walter told me that the village of Great Yarr has a bathhouse. Bathing in oatmeal will help you.”

She did not say that the village could afford to spare no foodstuffs and would not be distracted. She had tried to rush off in pursuit of the monster before and gained nothing, so now she would gather her strength and learn before she moved. “What did you call the beast? Forest Grendel? Is it known he lives in the forest?”

Magnus shook his head. “It is not known, but I do not think so now, or at least not outdoors. I have hunted wolf’s heads who have been outlawed and fled into woodland, and they always have camps and dens and food caches within the forest. I have found none of those hereabouts.”

“My dowsing caught no sign of any lair of his,” Elfrida agreed.

Magnus leaned forward, bracing himself with his injured arm. Elfrida forced herself not to stare at his stump, but to listen to him.

“Do you sense anything?” he asked softly.

“The night you came, I felt something approach.” She frowned, trying to put into words feelings and impressions that were as elusive as smoke. “A great purpose,” she said. “A need and urgent desire.”

Now Magnus was frowning. “Have you a charm or magic that will help?”

“Do you think I have not tried magic, charms, and incantations? My craft is not like a sword fight, where the blades are always true. If God does not will it—”

“I have been in enough fights where swords break.”

“Are your men good trackers?”

“They would not be with me, else.” If Magnus was startled by her determination to talk only of the beast, he gave no sign. “Tell me of your sister and her habits. Did she keep to the same paths and same tasks each day?”

“Yes and yes, but what else did Walter say? The old men have told me nothing!”

“No, they do not want the womenfolk to know anything, even you, I fear.” His kind eyes gleamed, as if he enjoyed her discomfiture. He had a small golden cross in his right eye, she noticed, shining amidst the warm brown.

A sparkle for the lasses, eh, Magnus?

To her further discomfiture, she realized he had asked her something. “Say again, please?”

“Would you like some food to go with your mead? There are the remains of mutton, dates and ginger, wine and mead and honey.” His brown eyes gleamed. “My men found it in the clearing where I found you. The mutton has been a bit chewed, but the rest is palatable, I think.”

“It is drugged!” Elfrida burst out. “I put”—she could not think of the old word and used her own language instead—“I put a sleeping draft in the wedding cakes and all.” She seized his arm, not caring that it was the one with the missing hand. “Do not eat it!”

“Sleeping draft?” He used her own words.

She yawned and feigned sleep, startled when he started to laugh.

“A wedding feast to send the groom to sleep! I like it!” He chuckled again and opened his left hand, where, to Elfrida’s horror, there was one of her own small wedding cakes.


Published August 15th by Prairie Rose Publications

FREE to read with Kindle Unlimited.

To buy on Amazon



Author Bio


Lindsay Townsend lives in Yorkshire, where she was born, and started writing stories at an early age. Always a voracious reader, she took a degree in medieval history and worked in a library for a while, then began to write full-time after marriage.


She is fascinated by the medieval and ancient world, especially medieval Britain, where she set her full length medieval romance novels A Knight's Vow, A Knight's Captive, A Knight's Enchantment and A Knight’s Prize, (first published by Kensington Zebra, now re-issued) and also  The Snow Bride, A Summer Bewitchment, and several novellas.  Lindsay is also intrigued by ancient Rome, Egypt, and Britain. Flavia’s Secret, a historical romance set in Roman Britain, was followed by two more ancient world historical romances, Blue Gold, set in ancient Egypt, and Bronze Lightning, set in Bronze Age Greece and the Ancient Britain of Stonehenge. All these ancient world historicals are just 99cents or 99p.


When not writing or researching her books, she enjoys walking, reading, cooking, music, going out with friends and long languid baths with scented candles (and perhaps chocolate).


Author page on Amazon

Twitter page



Wednesday 25 October 2023

"Veil of Doubt" by Sharon Virts. (Psychological Thriller)


When a mother is charged with murder in a town already convinced of her guilt, can defense attorney Powell Harrison find truth and justice in a legal system where innocence is not presumed? 

Emily Lloyd, a young widow in Reconstruction-era Virginia, is accused of poisoning her three-year-old daughter, Maud. It isn’t the first death in her home—her husband and three other children all died of mysterious illnesses—so when Maud succumbs to an unexplained malady, the town suspects foul play. Soon Mrs. Lloyd is charged not only with poisoning the child but also with murdering her children, her husband, and her aunt. 

Enter Powell Harrison, a soft-spoken, brilliant attorney who recently returned to his Virginia hometown to help his brother manage their late father’s practice. Approached to assist in Mrs. Lloyd’s defense, Harrison initially declines, worried that an infanticide case might tarnish their family’s reputation. But as details about the widow’s erratic behavior and her reclusive neighbors emerge, Harrison begins to suspect that an even more sinister truth might lurk beneath the family’s horrible fate and finds himself irresistibly drawn to the case.  

Based on a shocking true story, Veil of Doubt is part true-crime thriller, part medical and legal procedural. Perfect for fans of Margaret Atwood’s Alias Grace and filled with rich period detail gleaned from exhaustive research, Veil of Doubt delves into the darkness of the South during Reconstruction, exposing intrigue, deception, and death. 



Amazon USA listing

Amazon UK listing



Author URL:


Sharon Virts



Sunday 22 October 2023

Voices in the Dark - Romantic Suspense with a World War 2 Mystery at its heart. Just 99p/99c


There has always been a mystery in Julia Rochfort's family. Who killed her grandfather Guy, a member of the Italian resistance movement in World War Two? When Julia travels to Florence to compete in a singing competition, she meets Roberto Padovano, already an established opera star, and they discover that they have a lot more in common than simple attraction.



26th November, London, 1993.

She had foreseen his revenge, but the attack when it came was brutal. Impossible to avoid, she watched the knife slicing towards her heart, her features betraying a mixture of anger and agonised suspense. Too late - she would never know love now, only obsession.
He struck, and a dull throbbing bloomed in her chest. The blow smashed her to her knees and the wooden floor seemed to jackknife upwards, sucking her into a cool embrace. She lay still, horror and fear fading as a warm languor swept through her body. Dying was easy.
Dimly, she heard the man standing over her chant something; a lament, a name, then he too was silent.
The main lights snapped on and she coughed.
'Sorry, it's the dust,' Julia murmured, coming out of the role and her character, rising to her feet. The Maestro seized her hand.
'Marvellous,' he was saying over the applause. 'Bravo!'
The masterclass for Carmen was over.
The Maestro caught up with her as she was hurrying from the hall. 'Is it tomorrow you're going?'
Julia nodded, pushing Carmen's veil down in her bag.
'Good luck - take care.'
Julia smiled, thinking of another promise. 'I will,' she said.

Summer 1944, Italy.

The terror began with the music. As they wound up the gramophone, the youth moaned and thrashed, trying hopelessly to break free. He lay in chains, a blindfold cutting into his eyes. The walls of the underground chamber were wet: blood or water he did not know. Sometimes he touched the stones with his broken fingers, desperate to invoke their silence in himself.
This time would he break? The record needle dropped onto the seventy-eight, the chamber rang. A finger glided down the boy's calf - he tensed, but the pain did not come at the music's climax. A lighted cigarette was thrust against his right foot and allowed to burn, spitting in the open wounds.
‘Tell me!' The whisper carried over the chords, over his scream, piercing the moment when he felt he could bear no more.
'Know nothing.. .' He shuddered. 'Don't.' He lifted his head, pleading with the Whisperer, the voice he most feared.
There was a moment's silence. And then a man, another captive, suddenly began shouting.
'I'll have you! Not one of your family will be safe! I'll have your wives, your children - their children . . . I promise you - you'll see . . .'


28th November, 1993, Florence, Italy.

Her search would begin tomorrow - tonight she could keep for herself.
The wind, sweeping through the funnel of jewellers' shops, thrust Julia along the Ponte Vecchio. She sped across Florence's oldest bridge, watching the faces of the local people, fascinated by their every nuance of expression, at once familiar and exotic. Winter sunlight flashed on her earrings as she turned her head. determined to miss nothing.
Polished windows tossed back reflections of a young woman in jeans, trainers and duffel coat. With glowing skin, bright, grey eyes, animated features and a heedful of black curls, she attracted attention even in the bustle of the pre-festive rush. She could be taken for a teenage daughter of the Italian matrons cutting over the bridge with their bags of vegetables, yet she had the surface confidence of someone older, unafraid to show feeling in an age of fashionable cynicism.
That same commitment marked Julia Rochfort as a rising force in British opera. She was twenty-six, and this was her first time in Italy since childhood.
English, English-speaking, yet also fluent in Italian, Julia had always intended to return to the country where she had been born. She found herself at ease within the swarms of dark-haired Christmas shoppers and black street traders hawking bangles and carpets. Out of the crush a jeweller sat relaxing beside his window, drinking from a china saucer. Julia smiled at him as she passed.
The wind swept on, grit-blasting the eastern edge of the City of Flowers, cleaning and brightening its face. The golden orb at the top of the dome of the cathedral gleamed, like a star pointing the way she should go.
Julia knew where she was going. She was taking part in a singing competition, the springboard, she hoped, to an international career. In four days she would be performing to her first Italian audience. She was apprehensive yet exhilarated, opened-out by the challenge.
She was in Florence, amongst people who spoke the same language as herself, who were dark as she was; people with whom she felt she belonged.
The sharp tang of the river drew her to the loggia set in the middle of the medieval bridge. Wind flicking her face, she passed a gaggle of school children, arguing - with the same extravagant face-pulling she had made herself as a child - over whose turn it was on a pocket-sized games machine, and leaned out over the Arno. The tip of her tongue played between her teeth, as always when she was concentrating.
Looking across the muddy waters to the biscuit-coloured apartments opposite put Julia in mind of her own family. Enrico and her mother Angelica would be boarding their plane now, to spend Christmas in Tenerife.
The holiday was her gift. In October, her mother went into hospital for an operation - not serious, but Julia was on tour and unable to visit. Now, with Angelica fully recovered, a long stay on a warm island would set her parents up for the new year.
It had made a hole in her savings, but she had been glad to spend it. She just wished she and her mother—
Julia laughed at herself and shook her head, cutting off the thought. She watched two youths bump over the stone sets on a scooter, black slicked hair gleaming more than their leathers. Across the river, above the snarl of rush-hour cars came the sudden ringing of bells, a clock striking the hour: it would soon be evening. In the meantime she would enjoy this mirage-like dusk of fading sun and coloured lights, the music of people's voices, the throaty chatter of roosting pigeons.
Julia smiled, absented-mindedly winding a curl of hair round her thumb. It was ironic that she, so much a creature of light, should spend most of her life working at night.
Enough, she thought, stifling old fears with a twist of her hand. Tomorrow she was going to Bologna, to see where Enrico had lived. Her stepfather had always talked about his life in Bologna, but was afraid to go back in case he or the city had changed. His widowed mother and sister had been killed during the Allies' bombardment: Enrico, then a prisoner of war, had seen no reason to return. He had stayed in England, eventually marrying a woman fifteen years younger than himself and with a small child - Julia.
Tomorrow she was going to Bologna to trace her mother's surviving Italian family.
This search was as important to her as the competition. Whatever happened, Julia had decided to spend three weeks in Italy. Surely in that time she would find something.
She pushed away from the chill parapet. Seeing a beggar crouching under the third arch of the loggia, Julia crossed over to give him money, then hurried on. Enrico knew virtually nothing about his wife's past: she had promised her stepfather she would find out something. The journey to Bologna was partly for his sake, an attempt to discover who Angelica's family were, but mostly, Julia had to admit, the trip was for herself, filling a gap in her life.
‘You think Rochfort is Italian?' her mother would say whenever Julia attempted to question Angelica about where they had both come from, 'I'm English. You're English. Forget Italy.'
Julia could not forget. Perhaps if her beautiful, auburn-haired, English-rose complexioned mother had told her of the Rochforts, of her real father, Julia might have been able to dismiss Italy, yet Angelica had remained stubbornly silent on these too. Throughout her childhood, Julia felt she belonged nowhere: she had often wished she looked as English as her mother, yet she did not.
Now, as an adult, Julia recognised that whatever her mother's claims, Angelica was also Italian. She had married Enrico, given up 'Rochfort' and taken his name. She was Angelica Varisi; she was linked to someone with a past. Enrico had snapshots of his family, Julia had none of the Rochforts. Or of the others, the mysterious Italian side that her mother always denied. It was not enough to have a name and nothing more.
She had been born in Emilia Romagna - Angelica had told her that much. Bologna was the capital of the region. Somewhere in that city there would be her birth records, people she could talk to, a family to discover.
Julia wished the days were longer, so that she could start at once.
Glancing back, she noticed a man in a grey woollen coat and scarlet scarf approaching. He was eating almond macaroons from a paper bag. A few crumbs showed pale against his lapels.
Julia swung round into the wind, pausing to fiddle with the loose bracelet of her watch. The man was speaking to the beggar, who gestured in her direction. She recalled seeing him earlier, hearing snatches of that staccato tread as she crossed the flags of the Straw Market and later along the stone corridor linking the Uffizi gallery to the Ponte Vecchio. Her musician's training gave her a good ear, a good memory.
Licking her lips, Julia decided to return to the jeweller's to have her watch repaired. It was something she should have had done weeks ago, except she had never had time.
Fifteen minutes later, the bracelet of her watch tightened and snug against her wrist - 'No charge,' the jeweller told her, with a smile she emerged back onto the street.
The man in the grey coat was still there, scowling at the prices in the window across from her. Tossing a crumpled paper bag into the gutter, where the breeze spun it along, he moved when she did.
Another tourist, taking in the same sights.
Julia stiffened, irritated at herself. This was already her country. She strode over the last cobbles off the Ponte Vecchio without looking back.

He was lurking when she bought throat pastilles at the pharmacist, prowling at another card carousel as she chose her postcards. He was nearby as she took note of a dry-cleaner's address.
His persistence deserved a medal, thought Julia wryly, but not from her. She decided she would leave finding a launderette for another time. Her thumb wound in her hair as she walked on. Now that she thought about it, this fellow was interested in linen, too. Why else had he been lingering near the market stall where she had bought her sewing silk?
'Come on then, pinch me,' she muttered, humour and irritation blending. She wondered if she were being unfair. Had she perhaps smiled at the man in one of their coincidental meetings, sent the wrong signal? She wished he would make his move. 'Let's get it over with.' Checking her step, she turned.
Twenty paces back on the pavement, the man had stopped. Ignoring frowns and gestures from people who shoved past, he was cleaning under his fingernails with a knife - not a penknife: Julia knew that at once. This was something heavier, surely much larger than any normal person would wish to carry.
Telling herself that she was over-reacting, Julia lengthened her stride. Suddenly she felt very alone.
Behind her the beat of footsteps increased.
A few moments later, whipping down twisting, car-echoing side streets back to the river, she was convinced she had lost him. Humming a competition piece, Julia crossed a road lined with Vespas and turned down another alley, hoping to find a short cut to the rank of bus stops outside Florence station. Her hotel was in the suburbs.
He was waiting up ahead in the piazza, one of several men leaning against a column. She saw him detach from the group: the blood-red scarf separating him from a hundred other strollers. He wasn't a tourist. He knew the city better than she. Her knowledge came from maps; his from experience.
The red scarf bothered her more than the knife. It suggested impulse, a man who had spotted her in the street and was wondering whether to try an approach to ask her out. Yet the stranger was stalking her with a determination which seemed out of all proportion to such a casual interest. But if he were trailing her - as he obviously was - then why would he wish to draw attention to his pursuit? Was the scarf a signal to others?
Even compared with opera plots the idea was bizarre, but then this was Italy, home of the kidnapper. Only last month a certain soprano - famous but hardly a great star - had been snatched from her hotel in Padova and held for ransom.
Dammit, thought Julia, yanking her hood over her head then immediately tugging it back, she wasn't going to allow this man to worry her. Nor under any circumstances would she lead him to her hotel.
Cutting through office cleaners streaming from a bank at the corner of another small, bustling square, Julia stepped briskly along the Via de' Tornabuoni. Florence's smartest street thronged with fashionable locals - easy to distinguish from visitors by their designer sunglasses worn even in winter, and those loose, taupe-coloured suits. Choosing the brighter, wind-blown half, she made great play of studying the ultramodern clothes displayed in the new Galatea salon. The mirrors gave her a chance to observe more closely.
There he was, walking straight past, scowling at the strobe light. Small and slight, with a jerky gait. Definitely not what she thought of as a mugger or the kind of prowler who preyed on lone women. He was older than his close-cropped brown hair and animated walk suggested - fifty at least. Expensive grey suit, close-fitting coat, conservative tie - clothes which should have given him presence. The red scarf was incongruous with such an outfit, yet somehow fitted the man.
No, he was nothing more sinister than a pest, Julia decided. The knife was probably bravado. There was no need for her to search for a police station, nor disturb the two carabinieri striking a movie-star pose on the street corner. Their guns made her nervous of approaching them, especially in so trivial a matter. She did not want to be mocked or pitied by those tough young men because of one ageing Romeo.
Julia stuck to that conclusion even in her more paranoid moments, when, between gusts of swirling air, she imagined she could hear that busy tread both behind and coming towards her. She hurried along, planning what she would do, counting her steps under her breath to keep wilder fancies in check. No one could possibly be interested in her. She had two assets, a strong voice and stamina, neither of which could be sold - not yet, anyway, not as a performer unknown outside England and without a recording contract. So who would pay for her release?
She dismissed the idea, letting out a sigh as she passed the obelisk outside the black and white patterned front of Santa Maria Novella. Cutting through a bumper to bumper line of traffic, she entered the building, forgetting to cover her head. She had remembered that this church backed onto the road opposite to the Station. Soon there would be a bus leaving for the outskirts. She would wait inside, then make a run.
The man would not accost her here: even Cosa Nostra drew a line at attacking people in the sanctuary of church.
Julia's prayers were swift. She checked her watch by the candle light: twenty minutes left.
At the end of the time she burst out of the great church, darting round two sides of the long building before her eyes had fully adjusted to the twilight. Her bus was waiting along the Piazza delta Stazione, revving its engine. Julia pitched into the melee - Italians never queue when they can shove - and was fighting for a place when a prickling between her shoulders made her swing about.
The man had joined the crowd and was elbowing closer.
Julia felt a blaze of anger - she did not want this creep trailing her all the way to Bologna. She had been wrong to be discreet: the best way to deal with a threat was to confront it.
She stopped dead in the heaving mass, letting people flow past, and pitched her voice so everyone could hear.
'I really think this has gone far enough,' she said coolly, her narrow hand pointing unerringly to its target. 'I'm talking to the gentleman with the red scarf. If you don't stop following me, I'm calling the police.'
The smallest of gaps opened for an instant around the man in the red scarf and several more innocent businessmen, their expressions such that Julia was almost sorry.
Seizing the moment before the press closed up again, she leapt onto the bus as its doors were closing. The driver roared off as she squeezed past other standing passengers to punch her ticket, her hands not quite co-ordinated as she glimpsed the man staring after her from the pavement.

The man's name was Tommaso and he answered to it, although in his own mind he was Tom. Now he was angry at himself for giving way to impulse. Seeing the girl by chance in the street, he had lost his head.
And how, Tom thought, scowling into his unsugared brandy coffee. His left hand was aching: he'd had to dig out a splinter from under the nail - he got a lot of splinters in his line of work and nearly always missed a couple until they were really hurting. He hadn't considered what the girl might think, catching him using a knife in the street.
Shaking his head, Tom took a sip of coffee, savouring the bitter drink whilst he stared out at the emptying square from his bar stool. In the tobacco stand opposite, a crumpled stack of papers flapped the day's stale news: another collaborator exposed and brought to trial. With the World War Two fiftieth anniversary commemoration due in the new year, prosecuting magistrates had switched their attentions away from the Mafia. These days anyone who wanted to get on in the judiciary was rooting out war criminals: it was seen as part of the new democracy, a clearing of the decks.
Tom snorted, signalling to the barman. Only Italians could get excited about ancient witch hunts.
The bearded barman brought him another coffee, poured in brandy without asking. Tom always drank brandy coffee at this bar: the place and indeed the city had many special memories for him. Of course had it not been for the business he would not have moved here two years ago after his wife's death. He wasn't sentimental, although he had his weaknesses.
He had kept his promise to his wife over the years, but that hadn't stopped him from being curious. When he had read the article in Oggi and learned that the girl was coming to Italy, Tom had seen it as fate. He was a believer in fate.
Tom lifted his grey coat from the next stool, leaving a few coins on the bar. He'd been undecided about Julia. Maybe if she hadn't confronted him he might not have bothered, let the whole thing slide. As it was, he had been offered a challenge.
Planning their next encounter, he stepped into the dark street, tucking the scarf round his throat to keep out the wind.


Sherry eyes fixed on his fellow-singer, Roberto pursued Isabel Alvarez across the stage through rows of peasant dancers.
He was a tall, vigorous figure. The sword at his belt seemed freshly forged for him. the long athletic lines of the eighteenth-century costume breeches suited him. A thin white shirt defined every muscle of his torso as he sang.
His face, that square forehead and chin and hawkish nose, was as telling as a Roman portrait bust, but his dark brown hair was a war zone of untamed spiky curls.
Isabel, the Spanish-American soprano singing Zerlina in Mozart's Don Giovanni was as beguiled as the audience of the San Francisco opera house. Roberto Padovano could have any woman he wanted, Isabel thought, and I wish it were me. She wished she and Padovano were more intimate than just colleagues. The Italian bass was just so convincing as the Don.
But the conductor was glaring at her from the orchestra pit: she was losing concentration. Isabel began and finished a heated duet with another singer and tried to conceal her impatience as the stage emptied. In a few moments, she would be in Padovano's arms as much as Don Giovanni's.
Now they were alone. If only this was more than acting, she thought, her voice almost stopping as he approached.
He caught her at the edge of the stage. His actor's kisses covered her eyes and cheeks and lips. He played at untying the strings on the bodice of her costume. He wrapped his arms tenderly around her middle - singing all the while, it seemed, only to her.
It was better than sex - almost. No man could sing like this one: the love song poured from him, a living caress in sound. Closing her eyes, Isabel leaned against him, breathing in music, answering not because she remembered the words but because she wanted them to become real.
Their duet drawing to a close, Roberto whirled her off her feet. carrying her towards the back of the stage as they sang.
Isabel shivered. A warm hand stroked along her flank, the touch light yet firm.
‘You're doing fine.' His low speaking voice steadied her. Roberto smiled, absently wiping a trickle of moisture from the side of his nose, brown hair spiralling across his forehead.
As he set her down on her feet, Isabel let out a shriek.
Roberto glanced up. A light fitting directly above them tilted wildly, then snapped with a loud crack. The heavy mass plummeted downwards.
With one hand, Roberto thrust Isabel Alvarez out of harm's way. His own momentum had them both on the floor, where they skidded violently into a laden props table. Disregarding a sudden fire in his left foot, Roberto gathered Isabel Alvarez gently into his arms, cradling her as the curtain finally swung down over the wreck of the light.
The doctor at the state hospital glanced from the X-ray to the tall impassive man seated in his consulting room.
‘You finished the performance with this?' the doctor asked, tapping the X-ray sheet with his finger.
'After a break to restore a little calm.'
'Just as well it was the last night. Must have hurt like hell.'
Roberto smiled, thinking already of his flat in Milan, of local bars familiar evening strolls and the fountains in the park across the road. 'Not as much as it could have. Accidents happen.' Glancing at his watch, he knew he would still make it to the airport for his flight home.