Today I am pleased to be able to share an extract from Katharine Johnson’s new book The Secret. My thanks go to Katharine for providing this snippet to tempt you.
About the Book
This is the second book set at Villa Leonida, the house at the centre of The Silence which was published last year but it’s a standalone story.
In The Silence some bodies were discovered at Villa Leonida, an idyllic holiday home, during a children’s game of hide-and-seek on a family holiday. They were found to relate back to the summer of 1992.
A year on, in The Secret, the villa has been put up for sale. Which for elderly resident Sonia can only mean one thing – that the renewed interest and gossip will lead to the discovery of her own secret which relates to that same evening at the villa in 1992.
But while she’s desperate to keep the past hidden another resident, Carlo, can’t leave it alone. He’s determined to discover the truth about a wartime atrocity in which Sonia’s mother and his own played a part.
Love, lies and betrayal in wartime Italy. Two girls growing up in Mussolini’s Italy share a secret that has devastating consequences. Against a backdrop of fear, poverty and confusion during the Second World War friendship is tested and loyalties divided. But a chance encounter changes everything. The girls’ lives diverge when beautiful, daring Martina marries and moves into Villa Leonida, the most prestigious house I their Tuscan village while plain, studious Irena trains to be a teacher.
But neither marriage, nor life at Villa Leonida are as Martina imagined. And as other people’s lives take on a new purpose, Irena finds herself left behind.
Decades later a tragedy at the villa coincides with the discovery of an abandoned baby whose identity threatens to re-open old wounds. While Irena’s son is determined to get to the truth, Martina’s daughter is desperate to keep the past hidden.
The Secret (opening)
A moment was all it took.
Sonia heaved open the door of the little church, taking in
the familiar smell of polished wood, beeswax, and
crumbling plaster. A shaft of sunlight crept through the
window, spilling onto the centre of the milky white floor,
leaving the corners in shadow.
She fumbled in her purse, pulled out a coin and put it in
the slot. With a loud click, the painting behind the altar
flared into life. Although she knew what to expect, she was
still shocked by its intensity. From the shadows rose a fiery,
wrathful Mary wielding her club above the head of a small
You’re still here then.
As a child, the painting had struck terror into Sonia. That
face so full of anger. But then, she’d reminded herself,
mothers in a rage could be terrifying.
She lit the usual candle, placing it in the iron stand in
front of the painting. Not that it would make any difference,
You’ve never listened. And now it’s too late.
It was years since she’d given up on her prayer. Now, her
swollen stomach and the absence of monthly blood seemed
like a final mockery of the state she’d longed for all those
years when she was still young enough for it to bring hope.
But the ritual was a comfort. It had become so much a
part of her routine she barely thought about what she was
doing. She watched the flame flicker and the smoke drift up,
veiling the glowering Madonna. For ten, perhaps twenty,
minutes she sat absorbing the quietness and coolness of her
surroundings, savouring those few moments away from the
A scrunching of shoes on the stones outside brought her
to her senses. Sonia felt a tightening in her stomach. Heard
the grating of iron against wood, the squeaking of the rusty
ring handle. She shrank back behind the font. The heavy
oak door juddered. A shaft of light appeared. The silhouette
of a small figure with plaited hair.
It was one of the English girls from Villa Leonida. They
came here sometimes, got up to mischief, messing about
with the candles, having water fights with the holy water,
leaving screwed up chewing gum wrappers on the floor.
She’d found the dusty prints of their trainers on the marble,
empty drink cans under the pews, and once some disgusting
words gouged into the panelling. She had also seen them
down at the pool where she worked, chasing each other
round and knocking over deckchairs while she was clearing
the café tables.
But this time the girl was alone.
Sonia could seize the moment. She could rise up and
accost her about the mess and the disrespect. This child
would be easy to take on. The way her face flushed and she
twisted her plaits around her fingers when people spoke to
her, let alone raised their voices. She was pallid except
when she blushed, which was often, and her eyes were
wistful and watery. Her awkwardness reminded Sonia of
herself as a child – in the days before she’d understood why
people found it so difficult to accept her.
But the girl didn’t speak much Italian and Sonia didn’t
speak English. She’d be wasting her breath.
The girl was carrying something. She seemed to be in a
trance. That round face, so white and smooth, and the large,
clear eyes – a lovely face, like the glazed terracotta cherubs
on the altarpiece. But she was no angel. None of them were.
She laid the bundle down on the floor in front of the altar.
Stood up, took a step back, staring up at the painting as
though she might be about to make the sign of the cross.
But instead, she slipped something from around her neck
and dipped down to the floor again.
The ancient wood of a pew creaked. The girl whipped
round, her eyes filled with light and fear. A choking noise
escaped her. The trance had broken. Sonia should say
something to reassure her, step out of the shadow, see if she
was all right. But her breath caught.
The door banged. The girl was gone.
The pile of rags twitched. It bleated. Sonia’s heart
exploded. How could this be happening? The thing she’d
prayed for so many times brought directly to her. Right here
in this place where all her secrets were known. She must be
mistaken, must be mad. If it was a trick, it was the cruellest
yet. But no, as she got closer and peeked inside the bundle,
she could see that this was no doll. It was a real baby –
weak but alive.
She gathered it up, marvelling at the smallness and
lightness, nuzzling her face against its soft head. The
wonderful smell of its skin. The little face was red with
crying, but the baby stopped just long enough to open one
of its huge, unfocussed eyes.
“It’s all right,” Sonia whispered.
Outside, the air was damp and smelled of pine needles
and sweet acacia wood. The colour had leached out of the
sky but there was a residual warmth. The path was deserted
in both directions – no sign of the girl. Sonia should go after
her, call her back. She should, but she wasn’t going to. If
she did that, it would be like rejecting God’s gift. Because
surely that’s what this was? A bit late in the day perhaps, but
after all her prayers, how could it be anything else?
About the Author
Katharine Johnson likes writing about ordinary people in extraordinary situations. She’s passionate about old houses and the stories they have to tell. She grew up in Bristol and has lived in Italy. She currently lives in Berkshire but spends as much time as she can in the Lucca area of Tuscany. When not writing you’ll find her exploring cities, drinking coffee, playing netball badly and walking her madcap spaniel
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To buy from:
The Secret is published by Crooked Cat Books and is available in paperback £6.99 and kindle £1.99 Click here
My thanks to Katharine Johnson .