An Excerpt From The Gardens

An Excerpt From The Gardens: Witches of Tuscany Book 1

WEST-CENTRAL CALIFORNIA 2000 A.D.

Julia Giardano reached the Berkeley Rose Garden at dusk. She loved the walk from her hillside condo to her father’s house, especially the view, even tonight, with worry driving her every step. She paused at the top of the steep, terraced park and juggled her armful of books. A scattering of smoking chimneys across the hills gave a peppery bite to the air. Fanning out beyond the Garden and bordered by the slate-blue mirror of the Bay and the distant purple hills of Marin was Berkeley’s north side, crowded, yet charming as ever. Too much so for her taste, but her father still loved it.

Her father. He always seemed to know just when she’d arrive. There he was now at the edge of the trees, ambling up the ramp in her direction. He showed no sign of the haunted look that lately had caused her such concern. Still handsome and energetic in his late seventies, he seemed especially chipper this evening. When he reached up and waved, she could tell he was smiling, already turning on the charm to get back in her good graces.

The rascal. His word, but it fit him to a tee, especially lately.

He’d shocked her silly two days earlier with sudden revelations of old family skeletons. Secret religious traditions—ancient, Pagan ones. And some kind of legacy—her rightful inheritance, he’d called it.

Then he’d clammed up, refused to say another word or answer even one of her questions since. He hadn’t returned her calls either, he’d finally explained this morning, because he was still trying to organize his thoughts. Well, she planned to help him. Tonight. Thus the books, which his silence had forced her to buy at a local bookshop other than his, a Bay Area fixture for over thirty years. She wrinkled her nose at the books, an odd assortment of Jungian psychology and early Greek religion—everything she’d found on ancient Goddesses.

“Such a face,” her father teased, coming up beside her. “You look as if you’re holding a nest of vipers.” He reached for the books, raised a bushy eyebrow at the trendy store’s bookmark sticking out of the largest. He tapped the only hardcover with his knuckles. “At these prices, it’s a good thing you nabbed at least one decent title. The rest are useless.”

“You could have told me what to read.

He gave her a tired grin, tucked the books under one arm and started down toward his house. “I truly wish I could have. I already told you that, Lady.”

Bristling at the old nickname, trying to ignore the distress in his voice, she fell in behind him and hurried to catch up. “Dad, you promised to stop calling me that years ago, but lately—”

“Look, you might as well face it. You will always be Lady to me.” Meaning he’d always consider her his little girl, too, she supposed. His deep-set, green eyes sparkled as they hadn’t in days. He reached out and ruffled her hair as if she were twelve instead of twenty-eight.

“Better watch out. There are worse things I could call you.”

“Sure, like witch!”

Arriving at his backyard gate, he gave her the exasperated parent look she’d rarely seen since she’d grown up. “There’s nothing shameful about being called a witch.” He rested his hand on the gate, above which dangled an old brass plate inscribed with their family name in a flowery script. “Especially when it’s true.”

“True for Julian ‘Tony’ Giardano.” Scowling, she put her hands on her hips. “You’ve called yourself a witch for as long as I can remember, taught me to respect your Goddess, but you’ve never tried to push your witch stuff onto me before.”

Until recently, he’d never been one for mood swings either, had always seemed steady as a rock. Except for the first year or two after her mother’s death, long ago, Julia had rarely seen him down—let alone anxious and vulnerable like this.

His eyes looked troubled again, his normally robust complexion too pale. “I knew the witch element of the family’s story would hit you like a bomb.” The lines in his face seemed deeper than they had only moments before. “I’ve wanted to tell you what I’ve managed to learn about this for years, but couldn’t, and I’m not sure what will help you most right now.”

She’d never seen him indecisive before, either. It chilled her to the bone. “Is this so-called legacy material, Dad, or just some quaint family customs?”

“The legacy’s important, Julia, there’s nothing quaint about it. It’s genetic, apparently lays dormant until triggered from within.” He stared at her in that intense, assessing way he’d developed only lately, then opened the gate and walked under the rose arbor. “As the last female in the Giardano line, the family gifts and their age-old responsibility have passed to you.”

Frowning, Julia followed him. “Earlier you said you’ve noticed some change in me. Is that why you were finally able to tell me about this?”

“Yep. Until I noticed that change, I was sworn to silence.” His backyard was large for this part of Berkeley, the landscaping old fashioned and lush, the craggy stone wall built by his own hands. He hesitated on the patio, stared at the bench he’d added in one corner. “These last few weeks have been great, Lady, with you puttering around here like old times.”

There it was again, that new telltale catch in his voice. It had opened the well of her anxiety, forced her to face the fact he wouldn’t live forever. She’d curbed her independent streak, spent more time with him, even asked his advice a few times. “I’ve enjoyed myself, too.” Beneath the bench, the violets Julia planted the month before had bloomed.

He glanced down at the tiny purple flowers. “It’s not the garden I’ve loved watching blossom,” he said gruffly. “It’s you. I always knew you would.”

“Thanks.” The breeze blew a lock of his hair across his cheek. She tucked it behind his ear. “I think.”

“Trust me.” Still tense but clearly happy again, he led her indoors.

Delicious aromas hit her the instant she entered the kitchen. Her stomach growled.

He chuckled. “We’d best have dinner before we talk.”

“Not on your life.”

“I have a few presents for you, first.”

“You’ve got to be joking.”

“Honestly, Kiddo.” He gave her a look her Italian-born grandmother used to say reminded her of folletti, those cute little sprites from Tuscan fairy tales. He put on his glasses, raised an eyebrow as he gave her outfit a penetrating gaze. “You really need these presents.”

She glanced down at her soft, faded jeans, tugged at the hem of her baggy and equally faded gold flannel shirt, an old favorite she’d pulled on over a newer beige turtleneck. Her usual style. He knew she worked with homeless kids and their struggling parents. Dressing like a fashion plate was out of the question. “You’ve never cared how I dressed before.”

“I never said anything before. There’s a difference. Besides, you’re gonna need a new look. For your new life.”

“New what?” Her stomach tightened.

“You heard me.”

“I don’t want a new life.” She’d never fit in with her fast-track generation. Building something that worked for her had not been easy.

“That’s what you say now, but believe me, a Giardano heiress can’t run around Tuscany looking like a scruffy tomboy.”

Heiress, with a capital H. There was no mistaking that, or the challenge in his eyes. Nudging his glasses down his nose, he glared at her over their rim. There was no mistaking the Tuscany bit, either. She stared into his eyes, her alarm changing to astonishment. “Dream on, Dad. I can’t drop everything here—the shelter, my work with the kids—and head for Tuscany. I just can’t do it.”

“Maybe you can’t today, Lady Bug, but soon you must.”

Lady Bug? Another silly childhood nickname. He seemed to be dredging them up from some fathomless pit of parental memory He caught her gaze and held it by the sheer power of his hopefulness. How could anyone so thoroughly lovable be so exasperating? She clamped her mouth shut, bit down hard on her lower lip.

“I promise you, Julia, your legacy will become your greatest passion. It’s immensely valuable—for your life and for the world. You’ll understand later, but for now, just imagine a power passed down through the women of our family for thousands of years. Think how special that is.”

“If it’s so special, why haven’t I known or felt something before?”

“I know it doesn’t make sense. All I can say is, my mother dropped the ball, and now, as the Giardano heiress, retrieving the legacy and saving it for future generations falls on you.”

The Giardano heiress. Beneath her resistance, Julia was fascinated, had been since his first hints of this. “I’m ready to learn more, but it all sounds so foreign—so bizarre—I’ll need your help to sort it out.”

He looked away. “I’m afraid I might not be around to help.”

Her stomach took a dive. “Why on earth would you say that?” She grabbed his arm, searched his eyes.

He seemed at war with himself, wouldn’t answer her, but the look on his face sent icy chills down her spine. Squeezing his cold hand in both of hers, she had the distinct impression he was withholding things to protect her, that he knew men who would kill for what he knew. Power-hungry, evil men. “Listen, Dad, if you’re in some kind of danger, you can forget about sending me away—to Tuscany or anywhere else.”

“Fine. Be stubborn, like the Taurus you are.” Seeming undaunted, he pulled his hand away and headed for the living room. “Stubborn runs in the family and will serve you well.” At the doorway, he turned back and beamed her his most enigmatic smile, his eyes dancing with mirth and mystery. “Just as long as you change your mind by May Eve.”

From The Audiobook Performed

by Claire Calverley | The Gardens