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Excerpt from An Unlikely Spy by Rebecca Starford, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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An Unlikely Spy

by Rebecca Starford

An Unlikely Spy by Rebecca Starford X
An Unlikely Spy by Rebecca Starford
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  • First Published:
    Jun 2021, 352 pages

    Apr 2022, 304 pages


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Book Reviewed by:
Ian Muehlenhaus
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Print Excerpt

March 1948


EVELYN SPOTTED STEPHEN across the busy road. He was leaning against the railing outside the Hotel Russell, a grand old building on the eastern flank of the square, reading a paperback, his collar turned high about his throat. As he pulled out his pipe and rummaged around in his pockets for a light, Evelyn felt the sluice of anticipation; it was like encountering him for the first time, though they had in fact been meeting every Friday afternoon for the past year. Walking toward him, she observed him as a stranger might, taking in his crumpled overcoat, his loosened tie, his flushed cheeks. He whipped off his trilby and gave her a lopsided smile.

"Ah, there you are, Evelyn."

He clasped the felt brim, as if uncertain about what to do with his hands now he'd shoved the book and pipe away in his coat pocket. After all these months, they still weren't quite sure how to greet one another. He finally nodded toward the hotel's thé-au-lait terracotta entrance.

"So, fancy that drink? I'm absolutely parched."

He held out an arm by way of invitation, and as he followed her up the stairs and through the hotel's revolving doors, Evelyn caught his familiar scent of pipe smoke, cologne, and warm, damp hair.

They were seated by the dome window overlooking the square, their usual table. Though it was nearly five o'clock, the bar was empty apart from a man beside the piano with his head buried in a newspaper. Once the waitress, a big-boned girl with a Lancashire accent, had taken their orders, Stephen began to talk about his new commission. Since the war he had worked as an Italian translator—novels, mainly, as well as the occasional cache of documents for the embassy—and he had been invited by a professor in Rome to visit the university over the summer to deliver a paper and begin a new translation of Ovid.

"They're putting me up at La Sapienza," he said, settling into his chair. "In halls, which'll be jolly. When that's done, I thought I'd mosey about. Travel down to Naples. Sorrento, maybe. Duck over to Capri."

"What about all that sunshine?" Evelyn teased. Stephen, it had become their joke, could burn in a blizzard.

"Blimey, yes." His eyes grew wide. "It will be raging, won't it, in July?"

The waitress returned, struggling under a silver serving tray laden with a tumbler of whisky on ice for Stephen and an enormous teapot, china cup, and rock cake, beige and swollen like a deformed hand, for Evelyn. It was good tea here at the Russell, none of the ersatz stuff she had to buy from her local grocer's, and fragrant with an earthy spice.

"Well, it sounds like you'll have a lovely time," she said.

"That's the thing. I'll be away for a month. At least. And, yes, it will be a fine sort of trip ..."

Stephen paused, took a gulp of whisky, and when he set down the glass he stared at it as if it were the receptacle of an ancient wisdom. Evelyn saw something in his eyes she didn't recognize—it might have been dread. He spread his hands against the tablecloth.

"The thing is, Evelyn, I don't want to be away for a month. From you. I had rather hoped you might come with me."

The top of his ears had turned red. Evelyn sat back; he had surprised her. She picked up the blunt knife and began sawing into the rock cake. The pianist started up a playful tune in the corner.

"You don't need to answer right away," Stephen said quietly. "I've caught you unawares." He looked into his lap. "But will you think about it?"

"Yes, of course." Glancing at his thinning hair, the fine freckles across his broad nose, Evelyn felt a throb deep in her chest. "Of course I'll think about it." She reached out, grazing her fingertips over his knuckles. "I'm so pleased you asked me, Stephen, really I am."

"Mm." Color had risen in his cheeks and he wouldn't look at her.

Evelyn clasped her hands together. She had hurt him. Sometimes she forgot she could still inflict pain on others.

Excerpted from An Unlikely Spy by Rebecca Starford. Copyright © 2021 by Rebecca Starford. Excerpted by permission of Ecco. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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