HER FIFTH AUTUMN IN AUSTRALIA wasn’t ending the way she’d planned.
Sienna Rossi jumped to the left, almost tumbling onto the soft Clontarf Beach sand. A soccer ball flew past and landed in the shallow water. A young family of five played ball together and a little girl giggled, clinging to her father’s shoulders.
Sienna regained her balance, a familiar yearning infusing her heart. She longed to be that little girl, delighting in her father’s attention. She longed to wind back the years and spend more time with her father and siblings. And she longed for a few more days, or even a few moments, with her Papà. But he was gone.
Sienna spun around, her heels digging into the sand.
Her cousin Billie stood twenty feet away with her husband, Zach. “We’re organizing the teams. Can you wait here?”
“Sure.” Beach cricket. The fun Aussie tradition Sienna had grown to love was next on her Saturday afternoon agenda.
A wind gust blew fine grains of golden sand over her bare arms and legs. Her ponytail anchored her baseball cap in place and sunglasses protected her eyes. In Sydney, it wasn’t unusual to wear shorts and t-shirts in late May.
Last week she’d worn summer clothing at the Italiano beach near the Amalfi Coast guest house where Mammà’s parents lived. Nonna Crisanti had given Sienna two birthday gifts to bring back to Australia. Handmade gifts Nonna Crisanti had chosen for her sisters who’d taken care of Sienna during her time in Australia.
Sienna had visited Nonna Rossi in Tuscany at the end of April. The whole family had returned to Villa Rossi for Nonna’s eightieth birthday party. Sienna had met Rachel, the cousin she’d never known existed. Family drama and intrigue were ongoing in the Rossi family. Sienna preferred to ignore it all. Her memories of growing up in Tuscany were bittersweet.
Billie walked hand-in-hand across the park with Zach. Family gatherings, including Sienna’s Aussie-Italian family on Mammà’s side, congregated in groups on the grass. Zach had planned a game of beach cricket with Dave, his friend from church, and Dave’s family.
Dave Maxwell. Billie had told her all about him. In detail. He’d fast gained eligible bachelor status in Billie’s eyes. How Billie knew so much when she’d only known him four months was beyond Sienna’s understanding.
Dave was a regular at Beachside Community Church, and a teacher at the local high school where Sienna had been hired as a languages teacher on a short-term contract. Billie had seen this as fate, that Sienna and Dave were destined to be a perfect match. Sienna had seen it as a logical coincidence. Over a thousand students attended the high school, and it had a large teaching staff.
Sienna untwisted the tangles in her ponytail then tossed it back over her shoulder. Her hair needed a trim before she started her new job on Tuesday. To save money she’d ask her hairdresser cousin, Jodie, to cut her hair.
Two trips back home to Tuscany this year had decimated her savings. She’d lost her retail job in January, after requesting leave to attend her father’s funeral. She couldn’t work full-time until her new visa came through, and she’d only picked up occasional days of casual teaching from February to April.
The picnic lunch, provided by her sweet elderly aunts who shared May birthdays, had turned her thoughts to home. Mortadella, salami, cheese, olives. Mouth-watering Italiano deli food and animated conversations in her native tongue with an Aussie twang had increased her yearning for Villa Rossi. At least her most recent trip home had been a celebration rather than a time of grief and mourning.
Billie returned with a tall man, his face shaded by a baseball cap. Sienna’s gaze was drawn to his muscular chest covered by a fitted red t-shirt and long legs beneath knee length running shorts. He must be Dave.
Billie made the introductions and offered an excuse to leave them. Alone.
Dave extended his hand, his eyes hidden by wrap-around sunglasses. “Sienna, good to meet you.”
She shook his hand, his palm soft and grip strong. Reassuring.
“Nice to meet you, Dave.” Her words sounded clipped and cautious to her discerning ear, as if she wasn’t a fluent speaker of English and three other languages.
He grinned. “I like your accent. Billie has told me a lot about you.”
Mamma mia! Sienna pushed her sunglasses further up the bridge of her nose, drawing attention to her least-favorite feature.
Dave appeared at ease, as if unaware of her discomfit. He removed his sunglasses and wiped the lens on a corner of his t-shirt, revealing a flat strip of toned stomach above his waistband.
She whipped up her head. Messa a fuoco. Think. Fast. “Do you play cricket?”
His hazel eyes held glints of yellow. “My favorite sport.”
“Are you any good?”
“You’ll soon find out.”
She nodded, guessing he was a brilliant player. Her limited cricket experience included a few indoor cricket competitions at university and social games with friends and family.
He adjusted the strap of his backpack, and slung it over his broad shoulder. “I’m glad we had a chance to meet before Tuesday.”
“Me too.” She dragged her teeth over her lower lip. “My first teaching gig for longer than a few days. No pressure, hey?”
“You’ll be fine. The girls in your staffroom can’t wait for you to start.”
“I heard the baby arrived early.”
“By six weeks, but it’s all good. Mum and bub are doing well.”
He slipped his sunglasses back on. “Billie said you’re moving to Beachside Community Church.”
“Si.” A practical decision she’d made a few days ago. “Beachside is closer to home.”
“You’re living in Manly, right?”
“I’ve just moved into a brand-new apartment with my cousins.”
“Near Little Manly Beach.”
“The new high-rise tower with the café downstairs.”
“That’s the one. You know it?”
“I live up the road.”
She sucked in a shallow breath. Dave was her neighbor. An important detail Billie had neglected to mention.
Billie and Zach waved them over to a patch of grass further along the beach. A group had gathered around them, including a few kids.
Dave tipped his head in their direction. “It looks like it’s game on.”
“Yes.” She fell into step beside him. “Who’s playing from your family?”
“My older brother and uncle and a couple of cousins. It looks like we’ll have a few ring-ins to make up the numbers.”
She scrunched her nose. “Ring-ins?”
“Random people who join in. You haven’t heard that expression?”
“If I have, I don’t remember.”
“It must get confusing. You speak a few languages, right?”
“Only four.” A playful tone underpinned his words. “I know you’re teaching Italian and French.”
His grin revealed a cute dimple in his chin. “I’ll have to take you to Europe as my tour guide.”
Heat rushed up her neck, warming her face. The thought of being his personal tour guide . . .
Focus. Concentrate. Remember how to speak English. “That’s my sorellina’s job.”
“My little sister.”
“She’s a tour guide.”
“In Roma. Rome.” Alessa’s teasing would be relentless if she’d heard this conversation.
“Have you seen the Catacombs?” Dave asked.
“Si. I was there a few weeks ago.”
“I’ve been to Paris, but I want to see the Catacombs in Rome.”
“Definitely worth a visit. Do you speak many languages?”
“Very poor French. Embarrassingly poor. You don’t want to hear it.”
She chuckled, his honesty disarming. “You teach English, right?”
“English I can do, but I’m teaching only one English class this year. History and geography are my focus.”
He was down-to-earth and could laugh at himself. An appealing trait. She liked him. Probably too much.