(To see a video trailer of THE CITY OF SACRED BONES, click here and scroll down a bit.)
Piazza San Pietro
St. Peter’s Square
The cobblestones were still damp from early morning rain and tourists flooded the square. I navigated my way through the elliptical space, past the pink granite obelisk, and stared up in awe at the statues of the saints perched high atop the curved colonnade that surrounded me.
Suddenly a child darted across my path, rousting a pack of pigeons and sending them in a cacophony of wing flutters across the sky. I sidestepped the young boy, who frowned at his failure to catch one of the birds, and continued walking straight. The palace-like façade that was my final destination loomed in front of me, a behemoth of Renaissance mastery.
I had received an email from my Israeli friend Uri a few days before. He had heard about the success of my latest novel and wondered if I might be up for another adventure. Perhaps I needed material for my next book, he’d asked. Maybe he could help me research that book too, he’d suggested.
“If so,” Uri wrote, “meet me in Rome.”
He’d chosen St. Peter’s Basilica as a meeting place for a reason, but it hardly mattered why.
I would have followed Uri anywhere.
I trusted him enough to know that he wouldn’t lead me on a wild goose chase, and, truth be told, I missed him.
So I hopped on a plane and flew to Rome.
During the flight I mentally prepared myself for the unknown, because Uri was always good for that: Ushering you headlong into a roller coaster journey of discovery. And when you start the journey, he warned me once, you may not turn back.
I was reminded of that while walking through the square. I finally spotted him standing near the steps leading up to the columned entrance of the basilica, an umbrella in his hand. As I approached, he smiled.
“Mara yakiri,” Uri greeted me. My dear Mara.
“Hi, Uri,” I said.
He looked good. Perhaps a little more gray on top, but otherwise, Dr. Uri Nevon was still a handsome devil.
“It has been a long time,” he said. “You look beautiful, as always.”
I blushed and stared down at the dark cobblestones. Then, gaining the courage to face the man and the adventure he was inevitably about to lead me on, I said, “So why here? Why Rome?”
“There’s someone I want you to meet,” he said.
“Inside the basilica?” I asked.
“Perhaps.” He flashed a devilish grin. “Perhaps not.”
“I…I don’t understand.”
Uri took my hand and a pulse shot up through my arm. It had been so long, I’d almost forgotten how comforting—how natural—his touch felt.
“The person I want you to see may or may not be here,” Uri said, looking me deep in the eyes. “But this is where your journey must begin.”
It had been almost two years since I’d seen Dr. Uri Nevon. In that time, I’d taken a break from writing chick-lit novels, assumed a pseudonym in which to publish a planned series of biblical thrillers, and celebrated as the first book shot up the New York Times bestseller list.
But that wasn’t my original, intended path.
When last I saw Uri, I wasn’t even going to write the novel he’d helped me research. I didn’t think I could. Or should. I’d told Uri I wouldn’t. Besides, the book wasn’t the genre I usually wrote in. It wasn’t what my readers were used to. And it was controversial. The novel had the potential to blow up in my face, ruin my career.
Instead, it did the opposite.
It became a best-seller, made me, my agent, and my publisher a lot of money, and soon enough attracted the attention of Hollywood producers looking for a possible movie adaptation. There was even talk of me writing the screenplay.
I celebrated by skipping town, hopping on a plane bound for Rome.
Truth be told, I was tired from all the promotion and publicity. Early morning news shows. Multi-city book signings. Talk shows. Radio programs. Lectures at colleges and universities. And, most recently, meetings with hot-shot movie producers.
It was exhausting. Talking about the book ad nauseam, giving the same sound bites over and over, answering the same agreed-upon questions… It left me listless and spiritless. After six months of non-stop publicity, I had become an emotionless robot that was simply going through the motions of promoting a book I no longer had any passion for.
But I had to remind myself that this was what I wanted, to reinvent my career and become a best-selling thriller writer. I had done it, so now I must deal with the consequences of fame and fortune: The increased demands on my time. The endless comparisons to similar writers. The bevy of reviews both positive and less so. And the expectation of a follow up book that would be just as popular and profitable as the first.
Oh, no bones about it--there would be a kick-ass follow up.
But first, I needed a break.
Going to Rome would accomplish the latter, and plant the seeds for the former.
My agent, Jenny, was less than thrilled by the decision.
“You’re going where?” she had said, sounding exasperated. “Now?”
I’d justified the trip to Rome by saying it was a research trip for the second book of the series. “Movie deals take forever,” I’d said. “There’s time. Besides, I’ve done all the promotion I can possibly do for the book. It’s about time I start thinking about book two, don’t you think?”
Jenny was silent for a moment, which meant one of two things: either she knew I was right and didn’t have the courage to swallow her pride and admit it, or she was intentionally changing the subject so that the conversation was back in her favor. In this case, I thought she was attempting both.
“This doesn’t have anything to do with that Uri fellow, does it?” she finally said.
“I don’t know. Maybe,” I said.
“Mara….” Jenny said, sighing.
“I know, I know,” I said. “But look, he says he has material I could use for the next book.”
“And this…material…just happens to be in Rome, one of the most romantic cities in the world? The city that, in fact, is the origin of the word Romance.”
We were both quiet for a moment.
“I could use a vacation?” I finally said, attempting to further justify the trip, as if knowing my first excuse hadn’t worked.
“Mm hmm,” Jenny said.
“Look, big sis…” I said mockingly.
“Hey, right now you need an older, more experienced woman’s advice. I ceased being your agent the moment you told me you Uri was involved.”
“I don’t need advice. I need to write the second book.”
“You need a swift kick in the rump for even contemplating the notion of you and Uri being a couple.”
“That’s not my intention. I told you I need--”
“What you need is to stay away from him,” Jenny interjected. “He’s in love with someone else and being with him in Rome, of all places, will not do you any good. He’s a distraction you don’t need. He’ll only bring you more heartache.”
“Wow,” I said. “I don’t even know where to begin.”
“Begin by emailing Uri back, telling him thanks but no thanks.”
“Unbelievable,” I said. “You’re unbelievable. No wonder I flew off to Jerusalem to research the first book without telling you. To spare myself the tongue-lashing.”
Jenny sighed deeply and cleared her throat. “Look, Mara. You’re more than just my client. I care about you. And I’m concerned that seeing Uri again will affect you in a negative way—personally and professionally.”
“You’re concerned you’re going to lose your cash cow,” I whispered.
Luckily Jenny hadn’t heard me.
“After all,” she continued, “it’s not like you need to meet him in person in order to get the material he claims to have. He can simply email the information to you and you can do your own research from there.”
“After all,” I countered, “It’s not like Uri taught me everything I know on the subject of the Talpiot tomb. It’s not like he showed me some of the most precious artifacts known to biblical history, artifacts that, you know, seen in the flesh inspired me to write a best-selling novel that made you rich!”
I flinched and pinched my eyes shut the moment I said it.
Jenny’s shock registered in the way her quick inhale of breath caught in her throat. She was silent after that, and this time, I knew that the pride that usually kept her from admitting fault kept her silent for another reason: Hurt caused by a trusted yet unnecessarily cruel client-turned-friend.
“Oh God, I’m sorry,” I said. “I didn’t mean it.”
“Well,” Jenny said. “There’s no taking it back. It’s out there.”
“I really appreciate your encouragement and advice,” I said. “You stuck by me through every up and down in my career.”
“Yes, I did,” Jenny said.
“And I wouldn’t have been able to publish this book without you. You were a crucial piece of the puzzle and the one person who—despite doubts--helped catapult its success. You deserve every penny.”
“Yes, I know,” she sniffed.
“And now, because of your continued belief in its marketability--”
“Okay, enough,” Jenny interrupted. “Stop kissing my tush. I get it. You value our relationship.”
“I do, Jenny. Really I do. So you have to believe me when I say that going to Rome is the right thing for me to do.”
“Are you absolutely sure?”
“I trust Uri. He wouldn’t let me go to Rome on a whim. He’s got something. Something that’ll make for another best-seller. I just know it.”
“Just be careful, okay?” Jenny said, resignation in her voice.
“Always,” I said.
“So what’s the second book going to be about?” she asked.
“I don’t know yet. I have to go to Rome to find out.”
I stood under the portico of St. Peter’s Basilica, looking into the deep brown eyes of my Israeli friend, Dr. Uri Nevon. Almost two years had passed without so much as an email between us, so I was unsure about a lot of things. Was he still teaching at Hebrew University in Jerusalem? Was he still in communication with his ex-fiance, Ziva, a fellow professor who’d broken their engagement upon learning of his near-obsession with the Talpiot tomb, only to marry the man who’d arrested Uri for breaking into said tomb? Did he continue his friendship with Lev, the young shop clerk and almost brother-in-law who’d helped him break into the Talpiot tomb?
Mostly, though, I wanted to know his reasons for wanting to meet me here, in Rome, at St. Peter’s Basilica. And, secretly, I wanted to know if he ever thought about me, and our kiss…
We had some catching up to, and I was hoping a weeks’ long visit would allow me to unwind, reacquaint with Uri, and get inspired for the next novel I needed to write.
At the moment though, I was distracted. As if Rome in the spring wasn’t overwhelmingly distracting enough, Uri was holding my hand and looking at me in that curious way of his, with his eyebrows arched and his mouth set, as if waiting for me to make the next move. I’d seen him do this many times, as he stood before a roomful of eager students in a lecture hall, awaiting questions or answers or for lively debate. So while I had sorely missed the affection of a handsome, successful, passionate man—perhaps this handsome, successful, passionate man--and I craved his kiss, the city of Michelangelo surrounded me, and I couldn’t help but think about the first time I found myself in Rome.
It was nearly ten years ago, and Thomas and I were on our honeymoon. We were blissfully happy and completely unaware that in a few short years our marriage would crumble and fall apart. During our week in Rome, we’d gained more weight than we cared to remember eating pizza and pasta and creamy gelato; attempted to walk it off in more museums than our brains had power to remember; and marveled at the architecture and history of a city that, after the fall of its mighty empire, became the center of the Christian world.
I’d even thrown a coin over my left shoulder into the Trevi Fountain, the most cliché of touristy actions, thus supposedly guaranteeing my return to the City of Seven Hills. At the time I was certain that I’d return to this magnificently beautiful city. After all, how could anyone avoid the allure of a city that did nothing less than give birth to a language that is spoken by nearly 800 million people worldwide, inspired popular tales of love that changed the face of literature forever, and gave rise to the mightiest empire the world has ever known, and has yet to see the likes of since?
Yes, I was sure I would return to Rome, but naively I thought I’d be accompanied by my husband, the love of my life. But Thomas, never one to believe in superstitions, didn’t throw a coin into the Trevi Fountain. He didn’t need an old wives’ tale to tell him he’d return. Perhaps with his refusal, our fate had been sealed. Because here I was, back in Rome after nearly a decade…alone.
But at the moment I had Uri for company.
“So…this is it,” I said, spinning around to take in the sprawl and the splendor that is the piazza of St. Peter’s and the mother church of Roman Catholic Christendom.
“The most sacred of shrines,” Uri said.
It was then that I noticed a man over Uri’s left shoulder approaching us, calling Uri’s name. Uri spun around, said a few words in Italian to the older gentleman, and shook his hand vigorously.
“And I have the perfect person to show you around,” Uri said, stepping aside so the man could be properly introduced. “Ms. Mara Beltane, may I present to you Dr. Giovanni Maderno, professor of architectural sciences at Sapienza University of Rome. He’s the foremost expert on the history and architecture of St. Peter’s.”
Dr. Maderno smiled and bowed slightly. He was the same height as Uri and slender, with curly black-and-gray hair slicked back from his forehead. He was, I guessed, about fifty-five years old. “Ms. Beltane, such a pleasure to meet you,” he said in accented English, squeezing my hand firmly. “I’ve heard so much about your book from Uri. Complimeni.”
“Thank you,” I said, sliding my eyes briefly to Uri for any sign as to what was happening. I was expecting to have Uri to myself for the day, but obviously Uri had other plans. I should have expected as much, for Uri to have another surprise up his sleeve, but not so early into my visit. “I owe much of my success to Uri.”
“Nonsense,” Uri said, finally looking at me. “The full credit goes to you.”
I searched his eyes for the answer that I was looking for, that Uri wanted to spend the day with me as well, but came up empty. He returned his gaze to Dr. Maderno, beaming at his friend and colleague with the pride of a young man looking up to his older brother.
“Mara,” Uri said, still keeping his eyes on his colleague, “Not only is Giovanni the top expert on St. Peter’s, but he is also an ancestor of none other than Carlo Maderno!”
The professor straightened his back and raised his chin, as if to honor his long-lost relative. “Sì, è vero,” he said.
“Who’s Carlo Maderno?” I asked, looking between the two men for confirmation.
“Why, he designed this beautiful façade!” Uri said, motioning his hand down its immense columned length. “And he had the gumption to change Michelangelo’s design…”
“Ah, more like he was pressured to change Michelangelo’s design,” Dr. Maderno corrected. “But there is time enough for that, no?” he said to me.
Then, turning his attention back to Uri, the professor said, “My friend, you are getting ahead of me. You mustn’t ruin the private tour I have planned for Mara.”
“My apologies, Giovanni. You know how excitable I can be.”
“Yes, and always so full of surprises,” the professor said, turning to me. “Wouldn’t you agree, Mara?”
“Well, up until two minutes ago I didn’t know he spoke Italian, or had the slightest clue that I’d be having a privately-guided tour today,” I said, perhaps too harshly. Then I forced a laugh in attempt to cover my anger-laced words borne of disappointment. “So yes, I’d say our mutual acquaintance is something else.” I looked at Uri, who only shrugged and smiled sheepishly.
Dr. Maderno chuckled. “I must admit,” he said, “I had a little bit more advance notice of your arrival than you did of your tour. But I would’ve agreed to meet you no matter how late the invitation.” Then he turned to Uri. “Nulla per un vecchio amico, no? Anything for an old friend,” he said, slapping Uri on the back.
“Grazie,” Uri said.
Dr. Maderno turned to me. “So, Miss Beltane, are you ready for your tour?”
“I guess so,” I said.
“Well, I shall let you two be,” Uri said, looking at both of us in turn. “Giovanni, thank you again for being so agreeable at a last-moment’s notice. Let us meet up again while I am in town.” The two men shook hands.
“Are you sure you can’t come with us?” I asked Uri.
“I’m afraid not,” he said. “I have some things to attend to. But you are in good hands.” Then he took a step closer. “Enjoy your tour,” he said, taking my hand and forcing a piece of folded-up paper into it. “I will see you again very soon.”
And with that, Dr. Uri Nevon left our company, proceeded down the marble steps of St. Peter’s Basilica and disappeared into the throngs of people in the piazza.
So there you have it, a teaser as to what you can expect from THE CITY OF SACRED BONES. What do you think so far?