[This novel is in production, scheduled for release in June 2023. This sample chapter may change slightly in the final version. Enjoy!]
NANCY LOCKHART AND SANDRA BILLINGSLEY stood under the portico of the Cavalieri Hilton hotel in Rome. Despite the heat, Nancy wanted to stand outside to wait for the Smithson Italia driver. She stared across the street as they talked. Sandra followed her gaze to the yellow and white five-story apartment building. The splintered hole still showed in the door to the lobby, reminding them of the assassination attempt on the Smithson Italia executive last month. She saw Nancy shiver briefly, as if echoing her own thoughts.
“It feels so strange to stay in this hotel and look at the building that was my home for twelve years,” said Nancy. “Joe grew up there.”
“Too bad he could not come with us.” Sandra felt the usual pleasant frisson when she thought of Nancy’s son.
“He had orders to report to Naples. With his priority, he’ll probably get back two weeks after we do.”
“That building has so many memories,” Sandra said, “and I only got involved in the last two years.”
“Here’s hoping the excitement is behind us for a while.” They thought about that.
A hate mail campaign against Nancy as an American executive had been exposed as a misinformation project by the leader of the neo-Fascist party trying to frame the left-wing parties. The frequent car bombings around the country and two assassination attempts on Nancy in the last few months had kept both women on top alert for far too long. Sandra had hardly been able to worry about her older brother Walter, deployed to Vietnam with the Third Marine Division. She tried to imagine what could happen next.
“Does anyone here have your address in Richmond?”
“No. Smithson forwards our personal mail.”
“We are leaving some very angry people here. I won’t relax until you are safe at home.”
“Sandra, I owe you my life. Whatever the future holds for you and Joe, I hope we’ll always be friends.”
“Me too.” She tilted her head toward the street. “There’s Adriano.”
They watched as the black sedan paused. The chauffeur looked around, then drove to the hotel entrance. He loaded their bags into the trunk while Sandra held the door for Nancy.
Soon they were heading out the Via Aurelia to pick up the Grande Raccordo Anulare, the ring road that would take them around the Eternal City to the Via Ostiense.
As they turned toward the coast and the Fiumicino International Airport, Sandra asked Adriano, “Sono come questa tutte le macchine con autista?” Are all the chauffeured cars like this one? They continued in Italian.
“Most of them. Black, heavy, and fast. Why, signorina?”
“Just thinking ahead. There are usually two or three lined up to deliver passengers at the Departures Terminal, aren’t there?”
“You’re making me nervous,” said Nancy, also in Italian.
“Adriano, leave us off short of the entrance and let the others take the spaces by the door.”
“I understand, miss.” He smiled in the rearview mirror. “Brava.”
“What’s that all about, Sandra?” She had developed a healthy respect for the young FBI employee’s instincts.
“It will be their last chance to try something on you, and I’m not off duty yet.”
Four black sedans came off the Via Ostiense with them. Adriano let them pass. At the terminal, he took a spot well back from the entrance. Sandra held the door for Nancy again, scanning the delivery zone and the surrounding buildings as the former Smithson Italia vice-president got out.
“Don’t come in with us,” said Nancy. “We’ll take the luggage, and you can take the car back.”
He placed their suitcases on the sidewalk. Each woman had only one. They had shipped everything else to Richmond.
“So long, Adriano. I will miss you.”
“Come back to us, signora,” he said, choking slightly. He gasped as Nancy gave him a hug.
“Arrivederci, allora.” So long, then.
Sandra and Nancy picked up their luggage and walked toward the entrance.
“This way, Nancy.” She motioned to the side door.
Just as they stepped into the vestibule, a flash outside triggered an instinctive reaction. Sandra whirled to the right and dove on top of Nancy, pushing them to the floor.
Glass exploded into the terminal, followed by the sound of the explosion, then the pieces of debris. Passersby screamed, and the hot blast from the limousine blew over the two women.
From her position on top of Nancy, Sandra looked around. People were running away from the scene, while police and Carabinieri ran toward it. The burning sedan cast a frightening light over the three bodies crumpled against the frame of the entrance and the sidewalk.
“Are you okay?” She stood and helped Nancy to her feet. Both women could feel their hands shaking, but this was not the time to deal with that.
“A little sore where my chest fell on the suitcase.”
“Let’s get out of here.”
They walked quickly into the frigid air conditioning of the terminal and found the check-in counter for Trans World Airlines. It was far enough away that the personnel were only beginning to react. As soon as they had checked their bags and collected their boarding passes, police appeared to order the staff to close.
At the gate, they were ushered immediately to the aircraft. The attendant said, “We have clearance to depart, and the pilot wants to take off before they change their minds.”
As Sandra sat in her seat, she felt a sharp pain in her back.
“Do I have something in my back?” She leaned forward.
“Oh my God. It’s a shard of glass. Hold still.” Nancy pushed the call button for the attendant, then undid her belt so she could twist toward Sandra. She pulled Sandra’s blouse up behind her head. Pulling a handkerchief from her purse, Nancy extracted the six-inch long fragment, which had slid up Sandra’s back, slicing her blouse and lodging under her bra strap. Nancy held the bloody handkerchief on the wound.
“Please fasten your seatbelt, ma’am – what?!”
“Would you get a first aid kit, please?” Nancy said to the shocked attendant. “I need to disinfect a small area on her back. I’m a doctor, and this is not an emergency.”
The attendant hurried to the galley and came back with the kit.
Nancy cleaned and bandaged the wound created by Sandra’s sitting back on the shard. “Another half-inch and that bra would be doing you no good at all.” She buckled up and returned the kit to the attendant with thanks. “Let’s worry about your bloody wardrobe in the States, shall we?”
“Yes, doctor.” Sandra smiled at her. Each woman felt the adrenaline rush drain away as the aircraft taxied to the runway.
Midshipman Third Class Jason Joseph Lockhart, Jr., US Navy, approached the passenger service counter at the US Naval Air Facility Capodichino in Naples, Italy. His khaki shirt stuck to his undershirt and skin, and the damp summer heat pressed more moisture on him.
The yeoman on duty scanned his orders.
“Priority Three, sir. We have one flight each to Rota and McGuire. The Stateside plane is full. Would you like to take the C-130 to Rota and wait there?”
“Are the chances better there?”
“Yes, sir. Two flights a day to McGuire. You should come up with a seat in a few days. They also have a bigger barracks.”
“I came through Rota on the way in but didn’t get to see anything. Let’s do it.”
An hour later, he nestled into the webbing on the lumbering cargo plane and dozed off for three hours.
“Nancy! Sandra!” The tall couple standing outside the crowd to the left waved. Sandra took both suitcases, so Nancy could hug her parents long and hard.
Sandra had enjoyed getting to know Brigadier General Matthew Ardwood and his Parisian wife, Annabelle Dampierre, last year when they invited her to Richmond for Thanksgiving and Spring Break. She had also been an awestruck fan of Nancy Ardwood Lockhart since before she met the trailblazing executive in Rome. Seeing the Ardwoods gathered in a loving family reunion made the emotion swell in her throat. She blinked hard to stem the tears. She had never pictured Joe’s mother, her amazing hero, as a tender daughter herself, hugging her parents as if they might vanish on her.
After a short while, the three stood back to savor the reality that Nancy was not home for a holiday visit. The other passengers on the Silver Meteor flowed past them to the exits of the Broad Street station.
Soon, Matthew was driving them to the West End of Richmond, Virginia, to the antebellum house in which Nancy had grown up. Adele, the housekeeper, and François, the gardener, were waiting when they drove up. Nancy hugged the two Dampierre retainers before everyone moved indoors.
“How do you feel about having Joe’s old room?” asked her father. “I cleared out of the study downstairs to free it up for you. The master bedroom is big enough for my small desk.”
“Anything you want to do is fine, Dad. His room is bigger than my room in Rome.”
“Good, then. Sandra, you’ll be across the hall. When do you have to go back to Washington?”
“Any word on Joe?”
“He took the train to Naples. He’ll probably call from McGuire Air Force Base when he gets in.”
“Until then, no news is good news.” He motioned to the stairs. “Meet us on the veranda after you move in and freshen up.”
Nancy pulled the new white Alfa Romeo 1750 into the space marked “Dr. Lockhart” near the main door. She suppressed a momentary panic at the sight of her name so prominently displayed.
Inside, she headed for the elevators, stopped, and turned to the Facilities Management office on the ground floor.
The receptionist beamed a pleasant smile at her. Brunette, maybe Joe’s age, fresh with the enthusiasm of her first job. Nancy looked at the nameplate, “M. Berkeley.”
“Hello, Miss Berkeley. Is Jerry Leake still the Director of Facilities Management?”
“No, ma’am. Mr. Leake retired last year. Mr. Berken took over.”
“Dale Berken from MCV?” The Medical College of Virginia.
“Yes, ma’am. He arrived over the summer.”
“Is he in?”
“Whom may I say is here?”
Miss Berkeley punched a button on her phone. “There’s a Mrs. Nancy Lockhart here to see Mr. Berken.” She pulled the handset from her ear when the secretary in the Director’s office shouted something. Nancy smiled: it had been a long time since a new employee had not recognized her. “She said to come on back. Do you know the way?”
“If they haven’t moved since last year, yes. Thank you, Miss Berkeley.”
As she walked around the desk, the door to the rest of the department flew open. Dale Berken held it.
“Nancy – Doctor Lockhart. What a pleasure! Have you been back long?”
“Just a week, Dale. How are you doing?”
“Great. I’m sorry our new receptionist didn’t recognize you.”
“She was very professional and welcoming. Don’t scare her off.” Nancy shook hands with Dale’s secretary. “Good to see you again, Margaret.”
“Welcome back, Doctor Lockhart.”
“Thanks.” They went into his office.
“Can I get you anything?”
“No, thanks, Dale. I’m on my way upstairs, but I have a request. Could you arrange a meeting with security? Is that still Pete Wembly?”
“Major Pete is still our head cop. What’s up?”
“Let me walk around for a couple of days before we meet, but I have one item for you now. My parking place.”
“I need not to be so easily identified and targeted. Could we give me a spot farther from the door and without my name and job on it? I don’t mind a few extra steps.”
“You’re home now, Nancy.”
“But still a target apparently.” She explained the car bombing at the airport.
“Consider it done. I read about the way you dodged the shotgun attack.” He paused. “Do you prefer to dive to the right or the left? I’ll pick a spot that puts the flower beds on your favorite side.”
“Right side, then, wise guy.” She turned to the door. “I hope not to make a lot of changes, but that one worried me.”
“Welcome home, Nancy. Pete and I have your back.”
Joe Lockhart paused only a second before descending from the southbound Silver Meteor. He wasn’t sure who to expect, but his mother’s auburn hair shone over the crowd.
“Thanks for picking me up, Mom.” He gave her a hard hug. “You’re easy to spot.”
“So is a naval uniform.” Servicemen in uniform paid half price for train tickets. “Welcome home, Joe.”
They joined the people moving toward Broad Street outside.
“It really is home now, isn’t it?” he said.
“It is. Sometimes, I feel like I’ve only been on a long business trip, then some big change surprises me.”
“I can imagine – wow! That’s one change!”
“It took no time to confirm that I needed a car.” She opened the driver’s door of the Alfa Romeo. “So why not something that doesn’t handle like Noah’s Ark?”
He tossed his seabag in the back and got in the passenger’s side.
“Is this Berlina as zippy as the GT model?”
“I don’t know, but it has all the pep I need.” She downshifted and passed four cars before taking a smooth left turn into the neighborhood. “Aunt Mary will be here for the weekend too.”
“Are the courts ready for us?”
“Your grandfather warned them, and RLTA threw a party when I showed up.” Richmond Lawn Tennis Association. She parked behind a racing-green MG.
The delegation on the porch included Joe’s grandparents, Matthew and Annabelle Ardwood, and Matthew’s sister Mary. Joe paused to relish the unfamiliar pleasure of seeing them together.
Only his grandfather and great-aunt Mary had some distinguished gray in their hair. Like his mother’s rich auburn hair, Annabelle’s pale blond drew the eye away from the maturity of her face, which was clear and smooth. The whole family was tall, with the slim, athletic grace of superior tennis players.
After long hugs, they moved to the veranda on the back of the house. Matthew poured Moselle for everyone as they admired the sunset. They could smell the coq au vin in the oven.
“You have mail, Joe.” His grandfather went into the house and came back with a small stack of envelopes. “Already two from Sandra, who only left last week, and one from Diego.” Joe’s roommate last year at the University of Virginia. “The others look like business.”
“Thanks, Grandpa.” He put Sandra’s letters in his pocket to read alone. He opened the letter from Midn. 4/c D. de la Torre, USN, Sixth Company, Bancroft Hall, US Naval Academy, Annapolis, Maryland. “I still can’t believe Diego went to Annapolis.”
“How did that work out?” asked Nancy. “We have his things in the attic.”
“I thought my orders to the Mediterranean were a surprise, but Diego’s appointment arrived the day he was to board the bus to Norfolk.” Joe took a sip of his wine. “He always said his plan was to make a career, but he never expected to win an appointment to the Naval Academy. The principal was the son of a political friend of his congressman.”
“What happened?” asked Matthew.
“The principal crashed his car the day before graduation. Diego was first alternate; the congressman offered him the spot.”
“I hope he’s happy. Starting over like this means he is really serious.” The Naval Academy required everyone to start as plebes, so Diego would be commissioned a year later than their UVA class.
Joe read the letter quickly. “He says now that Plebe Summer is over, things are less crazy. He is one of the older plebes, and the upperclassmen have more fun with the high school graduates.” He laughed and looked up. “You know he takes a lot of grief for his dark complexion, don’t you?”
“You took your share of grief being his friend,” said Matthew. “Stupid people. Diego’s family was farming the Central Valley of California before the Puritans arrived on the Mayflower.” Sergeant Carlos de la Torre had fought at Guadalcanal in Matthew’s regiment and earned a battlefield commission there. The Californian lieutenant and the Virginian colonel had bonded in that crucible of fire.
“But he looks Moorish,” said Annabelle, “not African at all.”
Joe said, “Apparently, an upperclassman called him a nigger. They were in the hall outside the company officer’s office. Diego locked the other guy’s arms behind him, marched him into the office and asked the lieutenant if he heard that. He had, and no one harasses Diego anymore.”
Matthew chuckled. “I love that guy. I’ll write to him myself to remind him that we will still be his East Coast base.”
“Do that, Dad,” said Nancy. “I’m sorry I missed meeting him.” She asked Joe, “Weren’t you two going to get a place off Grounds this year?”
“Mrs. Page called,” his grandfather said. Sandra had stayed at Mrs. Page’s guest house when visiting Joe last year. “She said that she has a vacancy in a one-man room. She knows that you would prefer a place where Sandra could spend the night, but it would be easier to house-hunt from her place.”
“I’d much rather stay there than in the residence halls. May I call her tonight?”
“It’s your home, Joe. You can use the phone and anything else here. Just let me know if you call overseas, so I’m not surprised by the bill.”
Aunt Mary asked Nancy, “Can he afford a place off Grounds?”
“Converting to regular NROTC made the college budget much easier.” Naval Reserve Officers Training Corps. She tipped her glass toward her son. “Just don’t make a habit of earning it like you did last summer.”
“Tell us about that,” asked Mary, “or is that classified?”
“Most of it isn’t. Mom told you about the midshipman cruise in USS Point Defiance in the Mediterranean, and you knew about the hate campaign against her in Italy. Remember the historic haul of stolen and forged paintings that was in the news?” The others nodded. “One of men arrested in Rome ordered the hate campaign and the attacks on me and Mom. He is behind bars now awaiting trial and his political career is finished.”
“So, are you safe now?” she asked Nancy.
“Maybe, but General Arcibaldo has his base of supporters. We don’t know if the bomb at the airport was intended for me, but—” Nancy shrugged.
“Not very comforting,” said Annabelle.
“You are right, Grandmaman,” said Joe, “but with the extra training in Tony Madison’s martial arts studio in Charlottesville, I hope I can keep safe.” He asked his mother, “what about Smithson?”
“I’ve moved the obvious signs around the campus, like my parking place and my office. I had a meeting and a walk-through with Pete Wembly, our security chief. He’ll contact the local FBI and police, so they can be alert for threats to me or the company. That’s as much as we can do right now.”
“Would they attack Smithson headquarters?” asked Matthew.
“I don’t know, Dad. Pete has implemented several changes since last year.”
The oven timer dinged. Leaving their wine on the dining table, they gathered in the kitchen and put supper out, while Joe called Mrs. Page back. He would move in Sunday.
“How’s the new job, Mom?” Joe passed the roasted potatoes.
“I think I will like it. More business management, more research and development, and more frequent contact with investors and the Board than I had in Italy.”
“Luke works for you now?” He grinned.
Luke Arland had been a colleague in Rome, but now worked in the New York office. The family knew that he had helped Nancy finally grow past her grief years after Joe’s father died by an unknown virus. For that, they were all grateful.
“Not really. He is still Vice President for Strategy and Investment. Headquarters would have brought him to Richmond years ago, except that travel is easier from New York, and our major investors are there.”
Dinner and post-prandial conversation lasted until midnight. Saturday, they played tennis hard and fast on the courts at the University of Richmond. Sunday after church, Mary drove home to Amherst, Virginia, where she taught at Sweet Briar College. Matthew took the others to Charlottesville, so Joe could move in, and the family could treat their friend to dinner. Eleanor Page had been a guest of the Ardwoods in Paris and Berlin during her opera tours as a soprano before the war.
Monday morning, Joe rode his bicycle to the University of Virginia. He stopped at the NROTC Unit and the Department of Italian, Spanish and Portuguese to let the respective secretaries know that he was in town and to give them Mrs. Page’s address and phone number. He made an appointment for Tuesday to call on Captain Norwood, the commanding officer of the unit. The following Saturday the incoming first-year midshipmen would take the oath. Check-in for the academic year would start on Wednesday after that.
[This weekend we return to the backstory of this series with a story from the Korean War. Enjoy!)