Authors: Morgan O'Neill
THE OTHER SIDE OF HEAVEN
Book One of the Italian Time Travel Series
For France and all those who made my time there an adventure to cherish for the rest of my life, foremost among them Patrick, Annie, Francois, Jon, Francine and Henri, et, bien sûr, Marcel. Je vous embrasse.
~ Cary Morgan Frates
For my maternal grandmother, Caroline Viola Leslie, whose loving kindness touches me to this day. Tugging my ear, Grandma. I’ll never forget.
~ Deborah O’Neill Cordes
In the distance, above the surface of Garda,
looms the shadowy castle,
Telling the tale of ancient buried cities
and barbarian queens.
~ Giosuè Carducci
A.D. 951, Castle Garda, Italy
Willa of Tuscany trembled before the witch-basin awaiting the sign she feared would never come. “I beseech you,” she chanted. “I beseech you, I beseech you.”
She clutched dirt in her hand, the bits of earth warm and elemental to her touch. Sprinkling it over the water in the basin, she took a breath and blew across the surface. A tongue of blue flame burst forth, showering the air with silver stars.
“Send who is needed!” She lifted her gaze skyward. “Answer me!”
A distant thunder rumbled beneath the night sky and the stars whispered,
He is found.
Clouds parted and the moon smiled.
He is found, he is found.
Willa stared down at the water, now quieted and mirror-smooth, and pondered the virile image of a man. Emerald light filled his eyes, his hair spun gold, glittering. And his face! Perfect as a statue of old, a chiseled wonder: the brow noble, the chin square, his smile wide and sensuous.
Here was the one to father her child, the daughter who would carry on the family legacy, the otherworldly gifts.
She shook herself free, to action, and cried out, “Come to me!”
As she plunged her fingers in, breaking the water’s surface, the basin pitched and roiled. Willa staggered and fought to keep her balance, the ground quaking with dark purpose. She felt demon-cold ice arise and she screamed, battling pain and terror, reaching, grasping, and holding on. Green and gold whirled and exploded in a shower of crystals, yet she knew she had touched him, a bare instant of contact.
It was enough.
Breathing hard, Willa nursed a hand bleeding and numb, and then looked into the witch-basin once more. The vision had vanished. Only shards of ice remained.
Sharp and cold as her heart.
Summer of 2014, Santa Lucia, Italy
Gwendolyn Godwyn strolled the cobblestone blocks from her hotel toward the center of town. Perfection greeted her every step, art and life intermingled. Boutiques framed by exquisite murals, tempting bakeries, and jewel box gardens beckoned, but she turned her wishful gaze away, her heart pulled in another direction.
The echoes of her family’s past filled her mind.
Santa Lucia, Santa Lucia
. Gwen’s life-longings were coming true, and she wanted to absorb every piece of history, every detail this place had to offer. For years she had delighted in chasing down genealogical bits of this and that, the scattered remnants of past lives, but always from the safe cocoon of her personal computer. Now the past was before her, waiting to be uncovered in this, her family’s ancestral town.
Santa Lucia, Santa Lucia
. Gwen resisted the urge to fling a hat in the air and turn in circles of happy delirium.
She smiled at a sign glinting in the morning sun:
. No kidding, this place was paradise.
” A short, handsome shopkeeper fluttered his hand over his heart.
Gwen laughed, but kept walking. Ever since her arrival in Italy, she’d gotten loads of attention from men, but none had approached, which was actually a good thing. She had been warned their famed fondness for pinching frequently gave way to outright kissing. Gwen guessed her height scared them off; five foot ten was even a little much for most of the guys back in LA.
The attention continued as several young men openly stared and one gave her a wolf whistle. Waving them away, Gwen picked up her pace, passing marbled palaces and a centuries-old town hall. The piazza opened before her, and she saw a church on the opposite side. Its golden stones gleamed in the sun, stones that until this moment were pale nothings in faded family photographs.
“The Chiesa di Santa Lucia.” Her throat tightened and she fought to control her emotions. Remembering an old promise, she tugged on her ear. “
whispered in Italian. “Grandma, that’s for you. I made it, just like I said I would.”
Her grandparents had married here in 1945: he, an American soldier serving under General Patton; she, the town beauty who’d fought with the Italian Resistance. After their wedding, he’d brought her home to a seaside cottage in Santa Monica, California.
Gwen fondly recalled summers with them, their floors perpetually sandy, her grandmother’s scolding in Italian bemused and constant.
And the ear tug
, she thought.
Grandma loved Carol Burnett.
Whenever they got sentimental, she and her mom still gave each other the tug.
A cloud cast a shadow over the church, dulling the stones to gray. Her grandparents were gone now, the few remaining ties to Italy lost, recollections dimmed. But Gwen was determined to uncover her roots and the church’s parish records would be her starting point. By coming to Santa Lucia, she hoped somehow to reconnect with her grandmother by walking where she had walked, seeing what she had seen. In doing so, she would bridge the gap that had developed between the families, a gap she’d always felt. She needed a sense of belonging to something bigger than herself, an Italian bloodline stretching back across the centuries.
A little breeze carried the promise of strong coffee, and Gwen turned to find the source, an outdoor café. She looked at her watch – 9:29 a.m. She’d gotten here faster than anticipated. The first church tour didn’t start for half an hour, so she had plenty of time for breakfast.
Taking a seat, Gwen flagged a waiter and ordered a cappuccino and pastry. The sun came out again and she tied her sweater around her shoulders, her T-shirt now enough in the August heat. Pulling out her cell phone, she checked her text messages and laughed out loud at several. Despite her actual motivations for this trip, her girlfriends back home were laying bets on whether or not she’d bag an Italian. Most encouraged her to go for it, with only one cautionary voice among the lot.
Gwen answered them all with nothing but a winking smiley face. Almost immediately, her phone buzzed with another nagging message to be careful. Rolling her eyes, she put her phone away without replying and then stretched out her legs. She stared into the crowd, daydreaming she might meet him here, the one guy who would be her best friend, her companion for life. She was determined to do what her grandmother had; find a man different from all the rest.
A darling Italian couple strolled by, the boy dark-haired and slim, the girl pretty and petite, with cascading black hair. She wore a white camisole, tight floral skirt, and high heels. Size 2?
Instantly self-conscious, Gwen sat up and ran her fingers through her short, blond hair, then glanced down at her less-than-hot, size 10 Capri pants. Young Italian females seemed to be cast from the same mold, each one the same teeny-tiny slice of perfection.
Maybe I don’t need that pastry
. But her stomach growled just as her breakfast arrived.
She took a bite. Coated with almonds, the light, buttery morsel melted in her mouth.
A cluster of young Italian women oozing sensuality installed themselves at a nearby table. Gwen stole a glance at them – sizes 2 and 0 – but for their heels, not a one of them taller than five three. She sighed, dismissing them, and instead let her eyes wander over the stones of the church. She noted several graceful architectural additions working together along its façade – a columned portico, beautifully arched windows – while the main structure was solidly Romanesque. Gwen stared at the massive walls and flying buttresses, then took another bite of her pastry
She sipped her cappuccino. A nicely dressed man came into view and bounded up the church steps. The girls at the next table giggled and pointed. Gwen focused on the guy as he unlocked the door and slipped inside. Possible “nice bod” sighting. She thought of her girlfriends back home, then listened to the breathless Italian chatter:
… he is so beautiful. Like a Greek god.”
, an Adonis. And that blond hair, those green eyes,
. This is my third tour.”
“And my fourth. This time I shall give him my number.”
“Are you certain he is not married?”
I checked already. He is free as a bird. Should we ask him to join us for a coffee after?”
Sì! Sì, certo!
They giggled again and continued to speak excitedly about the tour guide.
Gwen grinned. From this distance anyway, the girls seemed to have pretty good taste. She usually preferred tall, dark, and handsome types, yet she’d heard a lot about the attributes of northern Italian men. Tall, fair, and handsome might just fit the bill; that is, if he were tall enough.
Thinking of her text messages, she mentally crossed her fingers. The Italian girls were still chattering, and a spark of competition flashed through Gwen. She would show these oh-so-petite
some big-time American firepower. Maybe she’d invite Nice Bod to lunch. She found herself wondering how many tall California blondes had given these girls a run for their money.
Gwen glanced at her watch again. 9:55. Tucking five Euros under the saucer, she gulped down the rest of her cappuccino and left the table. An eye-candy tour guide. This was going to be more interesting than she thought.
Crossing the piazza, she climbed the church steps and arrived at the main doors just as they opened for business. Inside, she looked around, but saw no trace of Nice Bod. She bought her ticket and waited as the
and a group of British tourists got in line.
10:10. Gwen felt impatient, wondering if this late start would interfere with her appointment with the curator, when the doors to the nave opened from within.
Her mouth dropped open. The tour guide looked a lot like her cousin Mario back in California. She was blown away. That much of a resemblance couldn’t be a coincidence, could it?
The girls burst into twitters again, one fanning herself dramatically, just out of his line of sight. Gwen felt like joining them, but for a different reason. She had to keep telling herself,
Look normal, look normal, he might be family. You can’t hook up with a relative.
Dressed in a dark blue, crested blazer, perfectly creased gray slacks, and fine leather shoes, he greeted them with a deep, melodic voice full of humor. Even the middle-aged British women were excited now – a few comparisons to Prince William reached Gwen’s ears – although the men either rolled their eyes or seemed oblivious.
Gwen just stared and slowly shook her head. He was even better looking than the prince, but… could he be family?
.” The guide nodded to the Italian girls and then ushered everyone inside.
, Gwen thought.
His badge says his name is Stefano
He glanced at her for the briefest of moments, and then winked before shifting his gaze and smiling at the older ladies. Instinctively, she could tell his smile was meant for her. Gwen studied him as he began the tour, playing to his adoring crowd. He made jokes, his laughter bouncing off the frescoed walls and ceilings, echoing, filling each room with life.
“Ancient Umbrian holy site… Etruscan colonies… Roman ruins…”
Impressed, Gwen listened as he explained different aspects of the building, answering questions with assurance. He seemed to know his stuff.
Stefano paused in a gallery, giving them time to admire the art. Gwen found herself staring at a lovely marble statue of the Madonna and Child, when she heard him speaking softly, from just over her shoulder,
The statue… it is by Pietro Bernini. Very nice, eh?”
Gwen turned and considered his beaming face, seeing a strong family resemblance in the way he grinned, the slight dimpling in his cheeks.
What’s his last name?
She needed to find out.
She glanced at the tour group; they were all studying the frescos. “
.” She held out her hand. “
Mi chiamo Gwen
The warmth in his gaze echoed his pleasantries. “
Molto piacere, Gwen
She nodded, pleased. Her name was tough for Italians to pronounce – most made it sound like
– but he’d said it beautifully.
He gallantly kissed her hand. “Stefano.” Then, with another wink, he turned back to the tour group before she could ask his surname.
With a twinge of disappointment, Gwen felt more determined than ever to get the answer. She had to find a way to speak to him later on.
The tour wound lazily through the choir. Behind a grille in a side chapel, Stefano showed them a startling painting of a young woman holding a platter containing two disembodied eyes. Beneath the painting, an elaborate gold and rock crystal reliquary surrounded a saint’s mummified finger, complete with manicured nail and emerald ring.
“Our patron saint, Santa Lucia – you would know her as Saint Lucy – was born seventeen hundred years ago,” he explained. “She was blinded, but God performed a great miracle and restored her sight. She is the patron saint of the blind, you see, and for this reason she carries the eyes on the plate.”
One of the British women giggled nervously, pointing to the finger. “Is that real?”
“Ah, yes,” he said. “The sacred relic was gifted to our church long ago by another saint, Adelaide, who was once a queen of Italy.” He pointed to a far wall. “That fresco shows Queen Adelaide with her ladies-in-waiting.”
Gwen’s view was partially blocked by several of the men. She tried to sidestep them, but gave up when Stefano motioned for the group to follow.
“Now, getting back to Santa Lucia,” he said as he led them toward a door. “She was martyred after bringing food to persecuted Christians who hid in tunnels.”
“In this church?” someone asked.
“No, no, it happened on Sicily.” Stefano removed a flashlight from a holder on his belt. “Come, let me show you the catacombs where our Christians hid.”
They walked downstairs and entered a vaulted room. The dank walls smelled of mildew. Above them, bare bulbs hung along a thick wire, scarcely providing sufficient light. Gwen looked past Stefano. Up ahead lay a gloomy corridor.
He led them inside, using his flashlight to illuminate the occasional empty crypt, and then came to a halt before three tunnels, branching off into a maze of dark passageways.
“Stay close beside me,” he cautioned the group. “If you wander away, it could be days before we found you, if ever.”
The Italian girls grew quiet, and Gwen heard someone complain of claustrophobia.
“Can’t you just feel the ghosts down here?” one of the British ladies murmured. “I swear I can feel their breath on my skin.”
Gwen thought wryly.