Authors: Rose Burghley
Toni was thrilled at the prospect of a trip to Scotland with Charles Henderson, whom she had loved hopelessly for so long. Would this be her last chance to make him notice her at last? Then suddenly it didn’t matter any more.
What had happened to make her change her mind?
No one, Toni thought, as she looked at her mother, would ever have believed that Marceline Drew
her mother. Not unless they had the relationship underlined and placed in italics for their benefit, that is.
And italics suited Marceline ... Celia, as everyone called her. Everything about her was delicately emphasised, even after a long and tiring day that had included a lunch with Charles Henderson and an exceptionally noisy cocktail party. Her skin had the usual perfect bloom on it, her hair had the gloss of a polished chestnut and made her head look small and vital, and even her mascara was still intact. She was wearing Drew products, of course, but without her own special blend of eternal loveliness they wouldn’t have got her very far.
Not at ten o’clock at night, and in a candlewick dressing-gown that had been washed several times—although she had some far more gorgeous affairs in her wardrobe—and with her feet tucked up under her, like a little girl, in an armchair.
“Some more coffee, darling,” she requested, and Toni poured her more coffee. “And now give me a cigarette.” She tucked the cigarette into the end of a long turquoise and silver holder. “Charles and I discussed what I ought to do with Uncle Angus’s house at lunch time, and we both agreed that as everyone is making money out of guest-houses these days we couldn’t do better than turn it into a guest-house. You know ... the sort of place we can advertise in
as offering all sorts of attractions, like trout fishing and salmon fishing and stag hunting. The ideal Highland retreat.”
Toni regarded her doubtfully.
“Is it far enough north for stag hunting?” she asked.
Celia frowned petulantly.
“I don’t know, darling, but I do know that all Highland rivers are bursting with fish. And your Great-Uncle Angus would have kept his well stocked. When I stayed with him as a little girl the house used to be full of people who prowled about shooting and catching things all day long, and it was such a wonderfully comfortable house, so warm and luxurious and a joy to stay in.” She lay back and closed her eyes, the cigarette holder at a careless slant as she journeyed mentally backwards into her past. “Dear Uncle Angus was such a pet, although he was awfully big and raw-boned, with the sandiest of sandy hair. He always assured me that the house would be mine one day.”
“How long ago was that?” Toni asked, wondering how she dared.
Celia opened her kingfisher-blue eyes at her, and sent her a reproving look.
“I’ve just told you I was a little girl. Possibly seven or eight.”
“And you didn’t see very much of him in recent years? I mean, you’ve no idea whether the house was as well looked after latterly as when you were young?”
“No idea at all, but I’m sure it was. Uncle Angus stopped inviting people, and permitting them to stay with him for weeks on end, but he was a bit of an old sybarite, and Inverada would have been well maintained.”
“Yet he didn’t leave you any of his money, did he?” Toni said thoughtfully.
Celia crushed out the end of her cigarette in the ash-tray, and replied with a frown between her brows that Uncle Angus had a perfect right to do what he liked with his own money, and anyway, she had the house, and that was all she cared about. Charles thought she was very lucky ... Charles was absolutely intrigued about the whole thing.
Toni gathered up the coffee cups and put them down on the tray. She had a mental image of Charles, impeccable as he always was, with startlingly white linen and a faultlessly tailored suit, giving her mother lunch at the Savoy or the Dorchester, or possibly the Berkeley Grill. Or possibly—just
since he was not the kind of bachelor who did that sort of thing—in his own luxurious flat.
While he was assuring her that he couldn’t be more intrigued by her sudden acquisition of a house, his grey eyes would have worn a look of cool amusement, and his shapely mouth a slight, one-sided twist that was deadly—if you happened to be one of the numberless women who found him attractive, and had a particularly susceptible piece of inner mechanism that went by the description of your heart.
Toni’s heart had melted into such a state of vulnerability where Charles Henderson was concerned that she could no longer really control it when he was near. It bounced up and down like a rubber ball on the end of a piece of elastic when he took her hand and enquired gravely how she was getting on, and whether she liked keeping house for her mother after spending all the rest of her impressionable years—or very nearly every one of them, so it seemed to her—in a boarding-school on the south coast. She was never quite sure whether he knew about her secret dream to be a concert pianist, and her mother’s refusal to take her piano-playing seriously. But she did know that, by comparison with her mother, she was a plain and rather gawky girl with enormous eyes that were brown and shortsighted, and her mother’s chestnut hair without the enviable gloss, and when she was in the same room as her mother no one would even glance at her.
Certainly not Charles, whom Celia hoped one day to marry, although he must be at least five years younger than she was.
“Charles is such an understanding man, and he realized I’m absolutely burning to see my house, and I can’t get away, and when I suggested that you could go and see it he actually offered to accompany you in case you should get lost, or be snowed up, or something of the sort!”
“What!” Toni exclaimed, and felt certain she hadn’t heard aright. Charles take time off from all the exciting diversions of a rich man’s London and accompany her up north? Impossible!
But Celia explained demurely:
“I’m hoping Charles will finance me if we do decide to get this venture going.
can’t really afford it just now, after all the expensive alterations we’ve had to our Bond Street premises. And Charles is always interested in new ventures ... he can afford to be,” she added dryly, even wistfully. “If Inverada has possibilities then he’ll pour out money on it, and we won’t have the slightest difficulty in getting it running as a luxury Highland hotel. But as a director—the principal director—he ought to see it for himself, and therefore I simply jumped at his offer to go north with you at once.”
“At once?” Toni echoed faintly.
“Well, in a day or so. You’ll need some warm clothes—something far warmer than you’ve got in your wardrobe at the present time—and Charles has a few matters to attend to, so it might not be for another couple of days, at least. But the great thing is that he’s
to accompany you, and I’ll manage somehow without you. And if dear Uncle Angus hasn’t let me down we’ll have a wonderful holiday this year in our own Scottish hotel.” She corrected herself. “Or rather, I shall. You, darling, will have to help to run the place!”
But Toni hardly heard her. She was trying to take it in that she and Charles Henderson were going all the way up to the north of Scotland together.
Two nights later she was actually on her way to Scotland with Charles.
She had met him at Euston, the big, bleak station that is so much bigger and bleaker at night, so cold and echoing, especially on a night in late February, with a threat of snow in the air. All day the snow had threatened, and the sky had looked sullen and ominous, but Toni had been too busy, doing last-minute chores, to be worried by it. But, waiting for Charles, with her coat collar up about her ears, she wondered whether they were being particularly foolish travelling north for no particular reason so early in the year.
Inverada House had been empty so long it couldn’t do it any great harm to remain empty a little longer. But Toni’s mother was the type of woman who, once she had made up her mind about something, had to do it at once.
As a concession to the inclemency of the weather she had given Toni a cheque to buy herself a new, good warm coat and suit, and Toni was grateful for the nylon fur collar of the coat as she stood waiting. She had also managed to find time to have her hair done that morning, and the girl had suggested a range of cosmetics that suited her. They were not
beauty aids—that famous range that had enabled a very young widow to climb out of a state of financial despair and educate a young daughter as well as keep herself in a state of near luxury (actually sometimes it was very great luxury when Celia felt reckless)—but they did a lot for Toni. Normally, she didn’t bother very much about make-up, but knowing that Charles was to be her escort...
Well, it was extremely unlikely that Charles would ever really notice her, but in fairness to him—because he was the type of man with whom one associated glamorous creatures like her mother, and who must find plain women trying, especially when there were so many lovely ones who would never ignore a lift of his finger—she had done her best to be a not-too-drab travelling companion.
Even Celia had commented on her appearance before she left the flat.
“Darling, I don’t know what you’ve been doing to yourself, but your skin looks quite good. I always said you could do something about that pallor of yours if you took the trouble. It isn’t enough to depend on fresh air and exercise to get a little colour into one’s cheeks. Especially when you live in London.”
But actually, Toni’s ‘pallor’ was one of her chief attractions. It was a warm creaminess that certainly was improved by a rush of colour under the skin, but it went well with the coppery tones in her hair, and her solemn brown eyes. Her face was a little pointed, her mouth large and vivid, and at times she had a strangely arresting look. An unusual, intriguing look.
Celia pinched her chin.
“All right, darling, I approve of the transformation, although you really should not encourage our competitors. Don’t try to impress Charles too much, will you,” half teasingly. “Remember that he never notices juveniles, and to him you’re very juvenile.”
Taxi after taxi disgorged passengers for the night train to Edinburgh, but by the time Charles alighted from his and casually paid his driver, Toni was looking worried. She was also rather blue with cold.
Charles took her by the arm and led her towards the buffet.
“A hot milk before we go aboard, eh?” he suggested, in his casual, charming way, and Toni had the feeling that she was a little girl he felt sorry for—the little girl he had often visited during her schooldays, and taken out to tea, for whom he had bought buns and outsize boxes of chocolates, and an occasional dolly mascot for her dressing-table. If she had been her mother, for instance, he wouldn’t have suggested milk. He would have said, while his eyes roved over her admiringly, and he inhaled a subtle delicacy of her perfume:
“What about a tot of whisky, or a hot rum punch? The very thing before embarking on a rail journey at this time of the year!”
But Toni, being nineteen and a half, was regaled with hot milk—which certainly warmed her—and then guided towards the train, with its long row of silent-looking carriages. A porter followed behind with Charles’s pig-skin suitcases and her own on an echoing trolley, and then the door of a sleeper was opened, Toni was induced to enter it with the minimum of delay, and Charles said goodnight.
“Sleep well, infant! I’ll see that you’re not left behind when we reach Edinburgh.” It was his idea of a joke, suitable for the occasion and when the one for whose benefit it was made was very young.
“Goodnight, Charles.” She barely whispered his name, wondering what would have happened if she had been her mother, and whether he would have stowed her away in her sleeper with such undisguised hurry. “I don’t suppose I’ll sleep,” she added, “because I never do on a train. I like to lie and listen to the train wheels.”
His handsome dark eyebrows ascended, as if that was very amusing. She could see the faint patches of frost at his temples glimmering in the unnatural light that streamed from her sleeper.
“Extraordinary things we do when we’re young,” he commented, and followed the porter to his own end of the train.
Before she fell asleep—and by some extraordinary fluke she fell asleep almost immediately—Toni had a mental picture of him reclining with his dark head against the whiteness of his pillows, his pyjamas very masculine and of heavy quality silk, the fragrance of his specially blended cigarettes surrounding him like an aura.
In the morning she was the one who looked bright and alert, and he was inclined to be irritable. It was the first time she had sat at breakfast with a man—she couldn’t remember her father, and in any case, she would have been confined to the nursery in those days—and she found it an experience that was somewhat disappointing. Charles confessed that he had slept badly—there had been some wretched people charging up and down the corridor throughout half the night—and he had missed his man on waking, with his usual cup of tea, and the daily papers.
“Oh, but I found it quite thrilling waking up on a train,” Toni admitted to him, her brown eyes sparkling, and a colour in her cheeks that had nothing to do with her new range of cosmetics. They were having breakfast at the Caledonian Hotel, and while Charles toyed with a cup of coffee, and smoked one cigarette after another, Toni coped enthusiastically with bacon and eggs and sausages, and was glad to see the toast-rack was well filled.
Charles watched her helping herself to butter and marmalade, once the more solid food had disappeared, and his eyes widened a trifle.
“You don’t allow the problem of your figure to burden your mind to any extent?” he suggested dryly.
She shook her head almost gaily.
“Of course not. As a matter of fact, I’m too thin. Mummy says so.”
He ran a glance up and down the trim figure sitting opposite him at the table. It didn’t strike him that she was exactly thin, but it did occur to him that she had the right sort of slenderness. In fact, she was delightfully slender, even in her rather clumsy tweed suit.
“And Mummy isn’t always right?” he suggested even more dryly.
She shook her head again.
“She sticks too closely to a diet herself,” she answered. “Far too much orange juice and dry toast, and I should know because I do all the cooking at home. I’m always trying to tempt her, but it just doesn’t work. Looking after her figure is a kind of religion with her.”
“And at eighteen—or nineteen, or whatever your age is—you don’t have to follow such a religion?”
“I’m nearly twenty,” she told him, looking faintly surprised. “You should know that, because it was you who collected me when I left school, and that’s nearly two years ago.”
“Is it really?” She couldn’t be sure whether he was really astonished, or whether he was merely assuming astonishment. “I’m afraid I’ve got rather into the habit of looking upon you as a child, although I must admit you make a delicious omelette which could hardly be bettered in a West End restaurant.” He frowned suddenly. “But isn’t it high time you were making plans for a career, or something of the sort? You can’t spend the rest of your life looking after your mother.”
She smiled slightly.
“When Mummy’s hotel gets started apparently I’m to help run that.”
“But that’s absurd,” he declared. “A remote Highland village, and a few guests in the summer time ... they won’t use up much of your time.” He, too, smiled, with a glimmering of amusement. “As a matter of fact, I haven’t the remotest intention of encouraging Celia to think seriously of this hotel scheme. She has far too many preoccupations as it is—” was there a note of bitterness in his voice, Toni wondered, as he said this?—“and what she needs is a little more relaxation, not all the multitudinous problems connected with catering for determined holiday-makers.”
Toni’s extraordinarily clear brown eyes reproved him.
“Then why are we going to have a look at the place?” she enquired.
His smile—a little one-sided, and infinitely attractive—broadened. His grey eyes grew conspiratorial.
“Oh, just to humour her, shall we say? And because she seems to have been very fond of her old Uncle Angus, and wants a report on his house.”
“Then you could have waited until the finer weather to do that.” She glanced at the window nearest to them, against which sleet was driving and turning to thinly falling snow as it did so. “Not risked getting snowed up, possibly in Great-Uncle Angus’s house, which I believe is miles from anywhere.”
“True,” he agreed, but the lazy, devastatingly attractive smile refused to desert his face. In fact, his eyes twinkled still more for a moment. “But that is something we won’t dwell on, for above all things I dislike any place intended for residence that’s miles from anywhere. And if such a ghastly fate is in store for us, well, at least it’ll be an adventure for you, won’t it? A change from the kitchen stove, where you spend so much of your time.”
She studied him with unnatural gravity for several seconds. There were lines in his face that told their own tale ... lines of dissatisfaction and boredom, lines of irritability and perverseness. He was in his late thirties, a man with a considerable income, a great deal of quiet charm, and some very striking looks. His chin and jaw were good, although his mouth was slightly sensual—for one who knew little or nothing about sensuality she wondered how she recognised that—and a strong will looked out of his eyes. True, his eyelashes were very black and almost feminine, but there was nothing else that was feminine in his face. Yet he lived rather an idle and a useless life, and instead of getting married to someone young and suitable, who could provide him a family—surely an incentive to do the best he could with his own life?—he hankered after her mother, who would certainly never consider starting another family at her time of life, and with all the many preoccupations he had mentioned.
She couldn’t be absolutely certain that he was in love with her mother—could such a man fall violently in love? she wondered. Or was it simply that Celia and her looks delighted him, intrigued him? Celia who could appear like a little girl at times, although she would never see forty again!
“You don’t have to take any risks for my sake,” she said quietly. “I’ll go back to the kitchen stove quite happily, and I’d certainly much rather do it than involve you in discomfort.”
To her surprise he frowned again.
“You’re not afraid of discomfort for yourself?”
“Oh, no,” with blithe confidence. “It would simply be an adventure,” and for a moment he was absolutely silent. Then he extracted another cigarette from his fine platinum case and lighted it with deliberation.
“In that case, it would be an adventure for me, too.”
“But you don’t need adventures.”
The grey eyes met hers across the breakfast table—a beautifully appointed breakfast table, with a lot of shiny silver—through a haze of cigarette smoke. The sensual lips, also rather fine, twisted wryly.
“Don’t I? How do you know, Miss Nineteen-and-a-half?”
“You must have had heaps in your life already.”
The grey eyes grew cynical.
“It all depends upon what you would call adventures. There are romantic adventures—I’ve had those!—and physical adventures—I served for three years in the Navy during the war!—business adventures. There must be other kinds ... fresh experiences, shall we say? I wouldn’t mind sampling them if they came my way!”
Toni glanced once more at the window.
“But this could prove a very uncomfortable adventure,” she suggested doubtfully. “Horribly uncomfortable, if we did get held up in any way in this weather.”
He, too, glanced at the window. The world beyond it was very dark and lowering, and the fat flakes of snow were making whispering noises as they flattened themselves against the panes of glass. Inside the hotel restaurant the shaded lights were glowing softly.
“I’ll risk it,” Charles said, with a new note of determination in his voice. “I’ll take whatever’s in store for me, if you’re prepared to take it, too. If not, we’ll take the next train back to London.”
Something glowed suddenly at the backs of her eyes ... something like excitement.
“I don’t want to go back to London,” she assured him. “At least, not yet.”
“Good.” He reached across and poured himself another cup of coffee. “Then we’ll tempt Providence, and in the meantime you can continue the disclosures you were making to me with your first mouthful of bacon and eggs! You like waking up and finding yourself on a train?”
“Oh, yes.” She leaned across the table to him eagerly. “This is the first time I’ve ever been to Scotland—that’s why I don’t want to cut the experience short!—but I was at school in Switzerland, you know, and I frequently travelled on night trains. They were so exciting.”