A vintage necklace holds the key to a long-hidden secret on the shores of Lake Como. When costume designer Ariana Ricci leaves her groom at the altar, she takes solace at the Palm Springs “actor’s colony” home of her theatrical great-aunt. While opening yellowed letters postmarked “Lago di Como, 1952” Ariana discovers relics from her great-aunt’s past, including a necklace that Audrey Hepburn gave her during the filming of a movie in Rome. Aching for a fresh start and the chance to resolve an unfinished story, the two embark on a journey to the sunny shores of Lake Como, Italy that will illuminate secrets and offer second chances—if they are bold enough to seize them. In Hepburn’s Necklace, Jan Moran, bestselling author of the contemporary Summer Beach series and the historical novels, The Winemakers and Scent of Triumph, offers a testament to the resilience of love. Hepburn’s Necklace will be available in ebook, trade paperback, audiobook, hardcover, and large print editions. For readers of Danielle Steel, Renee Rosen, Susan Meissner, Chanel Cleeton, Barbara Taylor Bradford, and Gill Paul. Preorder now or save to your Wish List for print and audiobook editions.
Release date: January 12, 2021
Publisher: Sunny Palms Press
Print pages: 358
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Lago di Como, March 2010
Ruby stepped as close to the rocky point as she dared, taking quiet joy in overlooking the shimmering, deep blue water that filled the verdant fjord stretching before her. To the north soared snow-capped Italian and Swiss peaks. On either side of the lake, palms, firs, and mulberry trees clustered in villages tucked at the base of steeply sloping hillsides, where yellow daffodils and violet crocuses bloomed in abundance.
Ruby lifted her chin to the breeze the locals called Breva, Lake Como’s afternoon winds from the south. She ran a hand over her dark red, shoulder-length coiffure. Though she had a top stylist who faithfully matched her trademark color, her hair was hardly the luxuriant, glossy mane that had earned her childhood nickname.
As a girl, her hair was so dark and shiny her mother called it ruby. The name stuck because Lucille Eunice was too long to call out. For her stage name, Ruby adopted her mother’s maiden name of Raines. She’d thought it sounded so fancy and elegant—and her talent agent had thought her surname of Smith was too ordinary for an actress.
While the small, private tour group of retired film actors chattered on behind her, she folded an arm across her torso, recalling the feeling of Niccolò’s arms twined around her as they’d stood on this very spot in Bellagio. His strong hands had spanned her narrow waist. At the memory, a fine, exquisite feeling filled her chest. Her love for him had never wavered, never dimmed.
This type of love was all that Ruby wished for her niece Ariana. Yet, Ruby feared Ariana might not have the chance.
My dearest, my Niccolò. They had met in the summer of 1952 on the set of Roman Holiday, which remained her favorite film. The story of an independent-thinking, runaway princess who scorns her duties for a magical escape in Rome and a taste of true love never grew old. That film had made Audrey Hepburn a star and, in a roundabout way, launched Ruby’s career in film as well.
Placing her hand over the hollow of her neck, she caressed the worn silver pendant that Audrey had given her. Ruby had been moved by her generosity, though that wasn’t the primary reason she’d cherished it.
That summer was imprinted on a movie reel in her brain—quite apart from the film shown in theaters.
It was June of 1952…
Wearing a full, sky-blue skirt with a crisp white shirt and a jaunty scarf at her neck—compliments of the wardrobe supervisor—Ruby stretched out her legs on the Spanish Steps in Rome. The Hassler, a grand hotel where Audrey Hepburn, Gregory Peck, and Eddie Albert were staying, loomed above the steep stone steps.
In the summer heat, Ruby rolled her sleeves high on her arms as the wardrobe assistant had instructed and tried to focus on the script in her lap. She had to memorize the lines for her short scene.
Ruby rubbed her stomach, which was tied up in knots as tight as the bowlines her father had taught her to tie on the ranch back in Texas. Here she was, living the dream she’d imagined. A real speaking part in a film in Italy! She couldn’t believe her good fortune. Ruby had her mother to thank for this adventure.
Just below her in the piazza, Mr. Wyler and his assistant director conferred. Miss Hepburn and Mr. Peck were relaxing between takes while their hair and makeup were being refreshed. Grips and gaffers adjusted equipment and lighting. Above them, people watched from railings, and smoke from their cigarettes curled into the warm air. Their chatter would be silenced when filming began again.
A shadow crossed her script.
Ruby shielded her eyes and looked up into a pair of incredible blue eyes rimmed with thick, dark lashes and a slash of eyebrows. With sculpted cheekbones and shiny dark hair that framed a strong face, he was the most breathtakingly beautiful man she’d ever seen.
“Hi,” she managed to say as her throat constricted.
“I’m from Texas. The state used to be a republic. For ten years.” Silently, she chastised herself. Why did I say that? She’d been as nervous as a cottontail rabbit ever since she’d arrived in Rome.
A smile played on his full lips. “I’m Niccolò. Do you mind if I sit with you? We can rehearse together,” he added, opening a copy of the script.
“Ruby. Pleased to meet you.” His melodic voice made her toes curl with pleasure. “Where did you learn English so well?” she asked.
“I learned a little from my parents, but mostly at the cinema, American films, English films. I love the magical way they make you feel. I’ve wanted to act—and maybe write—for as long as I can remember. Maybe we’re alike that way.” He touched her shoulder as he spoke. “And now, here we are, part of that magic, too.”
She nodded, barely able to speak. What Niccolò said was exactly what she felt in the depths of her soul, too. “So much alike.”
Ruby blinked in the breeze. That summer had profoundly changed her life. Had it really been that many years ago? Time passed so quickly. She had an urgent matter to address this summer, too—one she’d been dreading for years.
The young Italian tour guide touched her arm. “Signora Raines,” he said in a soft, respectful voice, his left eye twitching slightly. “Will you step back from the edge? We would hate to lose you.”
“I’ve lived on the edge all my life, Matteo. Wouldn’t this be a stunning place to die?” Sensing the young man’s nervousness, Ruby stepped back, her ivory silk palazzo pants rippling in the breeze. “Though not today, I promise.”
Matteo was visibly relieved. If he let a famous American film star plunge to her death, he’d probably lose his job, but what a magnificent, dramatic headline that would make. The Great Ruby Raines Flings Herself from Alpine Precipice.
Though it was actually a rolling Lombardy hill. Lovely, but not nearly as memorable.
The tour guide turned back to the small gathering. “If Lake Como looks familiar, it’s because the films Casino Royale and Ocean’s Twelve were shot here.”
Ruby tapped her custom-designed cane—a twisted, aromatic cedarwood design topped with a ruby-eyed silver eagle that she’d commissioned on a return trip to Texas. The press had once dubbed her the Fiery Texan and compared her to Maureen O’Hara and Katharine Hepburn. That was after she’d completed her first western film, Diary of a Pioneer Woman, with a famous cowboy movie star.
Actually, that actor made so many passes at her that she’d relished the scripted slaps across his face. He’d earned every one of them, but none of them wiped that self-satisfied smirk off his face. Even after she won awards for Best Actress around the world for that film. At least she had that satisfaction.
Ruby still remembered everything.
She shrugged off the memories and planted her cane on a rock. Though walking stick sounds more elegant. While that wasn’t quite correct, it was certainly more palatable. All because of an ill-timed step from a curb at home in Palm Springs that left her with a sprained ankle.
Really, she was hardly old enough to depend on a cane.
Ariana had insisted that she take it. “At least take a cane to help your balance, Auntie.”
“There’s nothing wrong with my balance,” Ruby had retorted, though she secretly loved hearing Ariana dote on her. Her sweet, strawberry blond-haired niece had the heart of an angel, though she was often too accommodating.
Ruby nestled the tip of her walking stick into the rocky ground. Here, right here, is where Niccolò and I planned our future. Dreams as big as the canopy of sky overhead, pinned in place by snow-capped peaks.
But we were so young, so naïve.
Acting had been her dream ever since she’d seen her first film, The Yearling, at the old movie theater. Her mother drove them more than an hour over rutted dirt roads in the rusty Ford pick-up they used on the ranch. They wore their Sunday best, too. Her mother made a new red-gingham dress with navy-blue piping for her.
From the first flicker on the screen, Ruby was immersed in the celluloid saga, identifying with the little boy on screen. A few years later, on a whim, her mother sent photos of Ruby to her sister, Vivienne, who lived in Hollywood and knew a talent agent. Her mother begged her father to let Ruby have a little adventure before she settled down with a husband and children. Before long, Ruby was on a Greyhound bus bound for Hollywood.
On the hillside, Ruby swayed a little, then righted herself with the walking stick. The past often seemed more vibrant than today. Lately, she’d found herself forgetting little things that hardly mattered, a date, or the name of an acquaintance. Not too bad for a youthful-looking woman of a certain age, she told herself. She wouldn’t admit to a day over sixty-five, at least not to the media. What difference did a few more years make? She didn’t feel old, except in her joints on rainy days.
But Ruby remembered everything that had happened in Italy. Reveling in her memories, she lifted her face to the sunshine. A moment later, she felt a tug on her sleeve and turned around.
“Scusi, Signora.” Matteo was by her side again.
Ruby lifted a brow. “I promise I’m not contemplating offing myself.”
The guide chuckled. “Honestly, I needed a moment myself. Sometimes I forget what a beautiful home we have here.” After gazing over the windswept lake, he turned to her. “Did you enjoy yourself in Rome?”
Another guide had led the tour there. “I did. I had a chance to relive an important chapter of my life. My first film, even though my part was cut in final editing. It starred Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck, but you’re probably too young to know it.”
“Vacanze Romane, or as you say in America, Roman Holiday.” Matteo grinned, tenting his hand against the sun. “It’s still very popular here. That must have been an enchanting time.”
Ruby smiled. But not in the way you think. Securing her emerald-green, print silk scarf that was fluttering in the breeze, she said, “It certainly was. That was the first Hollywood film shot entirely on location in Italy. During those magical weeks, it seemed all of Rome buzzed with excitement. And we had a wonderful group of talented actors and technicians. Everyone knew Gregory Peck, of course. He was already a big star. In fact, he was in the first movie I’d ever seen, The Yearling.”
“Who directed the film?” Matteo touched her elbow to steady her.
“William Wyler—Willie to his friends, but Mr. Wyler on the set,” Ruby said. “He risked casting a relatively unknown actress who’d been working in England. Roman Holiday had been Audrey Hepburn’s big break. Mr. Wyler knew she had the potential to be a huge star.” Ruby paused. “I miss her so much. I really looked up to her on the set. Aside from being a brilliant actress, Audrey was such a fine woman with a huge heart.”
Matteo smiled at her comment. “If you don’t mind my saying, you seem awfully young to have been in that film.”
“You flatter me.” Ruby laughed. “I was barely seventeen, but that film paved my path to success. And after Roman Holiday came out in theaters, I went home to Texas and took my family to see it.” Amused, she shook her head. “I was in a few scenes as an extra, and you’ve never heard so much whooping and hollering about that.”
Her mother had been ecstatic, though her father didn’t approve of her acting. Her mother, Mercy Raines Smith, had spent weeks cajoling her husband to let Ruby go.
“In Rome, did you see any of the places where the movie was filmed?” Matteo asked.
“Oh, yes,” Ruby replied, tucking her hand through the crook of his elbow for balance. “We visited the Palazzo Colonna, the grand palace in the last scene of Roman Holiday. I strolled the cobblestone streets of Via Margutta, where all the bohemian artist studios were located and found the flat used as Joe’s apartment in the film. And then I had lunch at a café with a view of Castel Sant’Angelo and the Tiber River, the Tevere. You might remember that setting. It was the scene of the melee on the barge, where Audrey smashed a guitar over a policeman’s head.”
“It must have been fun to be there for that.”
Ruby chuckled. “We’d had a long night of filming. I was in the scene as an extra, just one of the people dancing. We were all hot and tired, and after Audrey and the other actors crashed into the water at the end of the final take, we all jumped in for a late-night swim in the Tiber. What fun we had.”
“Sounds more like a magical summer holiday than work,” Matteo said, joining her in laughter.
“Indeed, it was.”
In Rome, Ruby had also left the tour group to find the pensione where she had stayed during filming. Outside, she’d gazed up at the second floor, locating the sunny room that had been hers. The building had been renovated, but the narrow staircase where she and Niccolò had chased each other up the stairs was still there. As she’d rubbed her hand over the worn railing, she could almost hear their peals of youthful laughter.
Matteo’s phone buzzed, and he silenced it. “I wish I could hear more of your stories, but that’s our signal to move on. Maybe you’ll share some over dinner tonight?”
“I’d be happy to,” she said, smiling.
“It will take me a few minutes to gather everyone,” Matteo said.
“I’ll wait here, if that’s okay.” She tapped her cane on the ground. “Don’t worry. I’m on stable ground.”
As much as Ruby loved Rome, the highlight of this trip was Lago di Como—Lake Como—or Lario, as the Latin poet Vergilius or Virgil referred to the magnificent Y-shaped lake. Its beauty had endured through the centuries.
To Ruby, the romance of the region was palpable. Bellagio was perched at the tip of the Larian Triangle. As she recalled, the evening lights glinted like diamonds in the moonlight dusting the surrounding slopes. On either side, the lake’s graceful arms cradled the village while orioles trilled their songs.
Ruby lifted her nose to the breeze as it swept across the lake, carrying the scents of a thousand gardens.
Glancing across the lake, she saw villas from centuries past hugging the shoreline. To one side was the village of Tremezzo with the lovely Villa Carlotta. Farther south on the lake, she recalled the stories of Cernobbio with the exquisite Villa d’Este. Yet the other shore and the sweet comune of Varenna, where a modest bell tower marked the location of a small church, drew her attention.
So many memories.
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