Authors: Anne Stuart
“The police are here.” It was Olivia's voice, cool, detached. “No one's seen Charlie since last night, and I'm starting to get worried.”
“The police are looking for Charlie?” Maguire demanded, keeping her hidden beneath him.
“No, actually the police are here to question people about Pompasse. Turns out they think there's a possibility that he was murdered, after all. They're with Henry right now, but they were very interested to hear about you. I imagine you'll be next.” Even from her cramped position Charlie could hear her mother move closer. “You're sure you haven't seen Charlie?”
“I'm sure Charlie's fine. And now if you'd get the hell out of here I'll get dressed and come and talk to the
But I don't fancy having an audience around.”
“You don't strike me as a shy man, Maguire,” Olivia said archly.
“Get the hell out!”
“I'm going. But it might be a good idea if Charlie made an appearance fairly soon. We wouldn't want the police to get the wrong idea.”
The door closed behind her, plunging the room back into darkness, and Charlie slid out of bed so fast her knees slammed against the rough stone floor. The pain was welcome, and she scrambled out of the way, trying to cover herself with her arms.
Maguire was sitting up in bed. “Don't look at me like that,” he said irritably. “I didn't start it.”
“You were about to finish it,” she said, her voice not much more than a whisper.
“And you were about to like it,” he shot back.
“Get out!” she said.
“Here we go again.” His voice was infinitely weary, and if she had anything close to hand she would have thrown it at him. Unfortunately there was nothing in the room but the bed. The damned soft, cozy, comforting bed.
He got out of bed and she closed her eyes, wanting to blot out everything that had happened. A minute later something came flying, and she realized he'd tossed her shirt and bra in her face. He was already dressed, pulling his denim shirt back on, and in the shadowy light his face was grim.
She still hadn't moved from her place in the corner, though she held the T-shirt against her chest to provide more protection. He opened the door, and bright daylight flooded the room once more. It must be midday, she thought miserably.
And then he strode back across the room, reached down and hauled her up against him. “Remember one thing, Charlie,” he snarled. “You
it.” He put his hand behind her neck and kissed her, hard and full and deep. And then he pulled away, looking down at her.
“Nice knowing you,” he said. And then he was gone, leaving her trembling, her clothes clutched to her chest.
He had every intention of heading straight to the car. He'd already stashed his laptop in there, ready for a quick getaway, but there were three police cars blocking his way, not to mention a handful of armed gentlemen on the terrace. He could have slipped out the back, made it up to the old church and headed out over open terrain, but he'd be screwed without his material. Not to mention that Gregory would cut his throat. Besides, either way, the jig was undoubtedly up. He hadn't broken any lawsâhe'd just be kicked out of the villa, but he had been running out of time, anyway. And a part of him was glad. He needed to get away from Charlie before he got sucked in too deep. She had a bad effect on himâturning him into a sentimental sap when he couldn't afford to let sentiment get in his way.
It was just as well that bitch Olivia had interrupted them when she had. He'd given Charlie a taste of pleasure, and now that she knew what it was like she could go enjoy it with someone else. Though preferably not with a jerk like Henry.
He could still barely believe what had just happened. She'd come when he'd kissed her, he'd felt her whole body convulse. She had so much bottled-up sexuality simmering inside her she was past ready to explode. She just needed someone who knew how to handle her.
It wasn't going to be him, more's the pity. In a matter of minutes she was going to find out what a shit he really was, and then she'd never look at him again, much less touch him.
Which was fine with him. He didn't need a vulnerable child-woman like Charlie falling in love with him, as she'd be bound to do as soon as he gave her a nice big orgasm. He preferred his solitary life, and commitment was the last thing he was looking for, and the first thing Charlie needed.
Pompasse's women were assembled on the terrace. Lauretta was trying to calm a querulous and confused Antonella, Gia was smoking, and Olivia was staring out over the countryside.
“Have a good night, Maguire?” Gia greeted him smugly. “I did.”
“So I gather,” he said in a cool voice.
“I know. I heard the two of you come upstairs. I hope poor Charlie wasn't too distressed.”
“She survived,” he said.
Some of Gia's smugness vanished. “Don't try to convince me you slept with her. I know better.”
“Of course you do, Gia,” he replied.
“Would you mind?” Olivia broke in. “It's my daughter you're talking about.”
Maguire took a quick glance around. His battered Fiat was blocked in by the police cars, but if he was fast he might be able to get out without hitting anyone, which would be a major plus. He was going to have to answer questions sooner or later, but he'd just as soon get the hell out of there before anyone knew exactly who and what he was. Before having to face Charlie once she knew what a liar he was.
Not to mention making his escape without denting a police car in the process.
He went over and poured himself a cup of Lauretta's strong coffee. It wasn't as good as Charlie's. There was something irresistible about a woman who could make a truly great cup of coffee. Hell, there was a lot that was irresistible about Charlie. And he needed to get over it. “So what are the police doing?”
“Talking to Henry,” Olivia said. “Apparently he had a lot to tell them.”
“About Pompasse? I thought he barely knew the old goat.”
“No, Mr. Maguire,” Olivia said, meeting his gaze. “I do believe he's talking about you.”
f they're not ready for me then I think I'll go for a little walk,” Maguire was saying in a lazy voice just as Charlie came out on the terrace. She had pulled her clothes on with shaking fingers, then gone around the back way to enter the house from the other side. For a moment she'd been tempted to just run upstairs, but she could hear voices from behind the closed door to the dining room. Henry's voice, in his rich, modulated tones, and the rapid-fire translator.
She heard Maguire's name, and she didn't want to listen anymore. She would have turned and run back out, but Gia had already spotted her, and her mouth curved in a perfect, catlike smile.
“You will please stay here,
” One of the policemen had moved to block Maguire's way. “They will be ready for you momentarily.”
She felt him look at her from across the terrace, but she ignored him, unable to look into his dark, unfathomable eyes and remember what had passed, or almost passed, between them.
“Where the hell have you been, Charlie?” her mother demanded. “Henry was worried sick about you.”
“Sure he was,” Charlie said, moving to pour herself a cup of coffee.
“You're still wearing your same clothes,” Gia pointed out maliciously. “Where'd you spend the night?”
For some reason they were all far too interested in the answer to her question. Even the police seemed curious. And God knows Maguire was capable of coming up with the truth if she didn't answer.
“I spent the night in the church. I like to go up there and be alone sometimes. You have to admit this house is awfully crowded.” She managed a deprecating smile, a ghost of her usual calm. “I must have fallen asleep up there.” At least it wasn't a complete lie.
“It's not safe up there, Signora Charlie. You should know that!” Lauretta said. “The stones are crumbling more than you're used to. You could fall and no one would know where to find you.”
“Actually that's not true,” Gia said. “Now we all know where to find her when she disappears.”
There was no missing the undertone of menace in Gia's soft voice, and Charlie could have kicked herself. Not that she truly believed anyone would want to hurt her, apart from Gia's focused malice. But still, one of the great joys of climbing up to the ruined church was knowing that she'd be completely alone, that no one would wander up to join her. Now they all knew, though she doubted anyone would care enough to make the trek.
Of course, Maguire had already done just that, and it hadn't ruined the place for her. She allowed herself a casual glance in his direction, then frowned. He was surreptitiously moving toward the edge of the terrace, for all the world as if he was about to make a run for it.
The rest of the police had emerged from the dining room, accompanied by a particularly smug-looking Henry. Considering Henry's occupation the last time she'd been anywhere near him, Charlie wasn't particularly pleased to see that expression on his patrician features.
Maguire halted, like a deer frozen in the headlights. “Yeah?”
“Mr. Richmond informs me that you're here under false pretenses.” The stern-looking
in the fancy uniform said, clearly the man in charge. “You told the ladies you were working as an insurance adjuster, when in fact you're a paparazzo.”
Maguire had the gall to look offended. “I'm a reporter.”
“For the sleaziest tabloid on the international scene,” Henry broke in ruthlessly. “You took advantage of the innocent trust of my fiancÃ©e, wormed your way in here just to write an exposÃ© of Pompasse and his sex life. The police tell me I can't have you charged with anything, but I can beat you within an inch of your life.”
Maguire strolled right up to him, and Henry took a nervous step backward. “You and what army, mate?” Maguire demanded.
“Oh, my,” Olivia breathed, fascinated. “I should have guessed you weren't a bureaucrat.”
“It would be best if you left, Signore Maguire,” the policeman said solemnly. “But we'll be wanting to talk with you shortly, and we'll be confiscating your notes and photographs.”
“Photographs?” Charlie said faintly, the first words she'd been able to utter.
“You won't be confiscating a goddamned thing,” Maguire said. “For that matter, there's nothing to confiscate. I haven't been taking any notes.”
“His laptop,” Charlie said in a strained voice. “You should check his laptop.”
“Unfortunately they'll need to get a court order to do that,” Maguire said, turning to look at her. There was no apology, no remorse in his face. “And the
has the best lawyers in the business.”
” Charlie echoed in horror. She'd managed to avoid tabloids whenever possible, but the
was notorious enough for even her to be aware of.
“He's top of the food chain when it comes to rats,” Henry said. “But you forget you're dealing with a damn fine lawyer already.”
“Please leave,” Charlie said, breaking through. “Please.” Her voice was calm, steady. She'd wrapped her serenity back around her like a cloak, and nothing could get through.
Without a word Maguire turned and bounded across the terrace, through the maze of cars to his rusty-looking Fiat. He paused as he climbed in the driver's seat, and his eyes met Charlie's for a long, thoughtful moment. And then he was gone.
“Marco, Adolfo, make sure Signore Maguire leaves the premises,” the chief policeman ordered. “And Signora Pompasse, if you would be so good as to come this way, we have a few questions for you.”
She allowed herself one last glance at the Fiat as it sped down the road. He drove like a bat out of hell, she thought. Maybe he'd even crash before he reached the bottom of the driveway. One could only hope.
She turned to the policeman, a calm, ready smile on her face. “Of course,” she said. And followed him into the dining room.
By the time Maguire reached Geppi he'd managed to lose his police escort. There'd been no need toâit had been pure cussedness on his part, but he took great pleasure in the shortcuts and false turns that left the police far behind. He wanted to get back to his ramshackle apartment in Florence in time to download the photos and text, just in case Italian law proved to be more invasive than usual, and he needed to call Gregory and tell him what had happened. It was a setback, of course. Maybe a major one. Maybe he should just trash his material and tell him there was no story.
Yeah, and how far would that get him? Gregory was no fool, and Maguire had been keeping him up-to-date on the stuff he'd been uncovering. Missing paintings, a harem of castoff women, a murder and a world-famous artist were elements too juicy to be ignored. If Maguire didn't give Gregory the goods, then chances were he'd hire someone to take those elements and make something up.
There were a dozen reporters after the same story, and making some kind of quixotic gesture would do little good. Besides, nobility wasn't part of Maguire's makeup. Charlie had chosen to marry the old man, and she'd benefited from it, hadn't she? People make their choices in this world, and then they have to pay the price. So what if Charlie's price was a little too steep? So what if he'd gone in there and upped the ante? It wasn't his problem any longer.
He didn't expect to see her again, which was nothing but a blessing. She annoyed him, she got under his skin, and she made him start thinking about things that had no place in his self-sufficient life.
No, to be honest he couldn't blame her for everything. He'd been burned-out for a while now, ready to chuck it all and head back to Australia. He'd been counting on this story, and the ensuing book deal, to keep him in style for the rest of his life.
He didn't need money to go back to Australia. There were jobs waitingâhe could have his pick of newspaper work if he wanted, or he could just go out to the cattle station he owned with his brother and become a rancher and screw everything. Right now that seemed the best bet.
In the meantime, though, he had to finish with this mess. He couldn't just drop it, not until the questions were answered. Where were the paintings? Who killed the old man?
And what the hell was he going to do if he never saw Charlie again?
He needed to get back to his apartment and call Gregory. So why the hell was he circling around, stashing his battered Fiat in a back alley and sitting in a cafÃ©, watching the road to La Colombala?
Charlie did what she always did in times of stress. Once the police had finished their brief and respectful questioning, she had headed straight for the kitchen. By the time her mother strolled in, the tabletops and countertops were littered with ingredients, and Charlie was kneading bread with a vengeance, her face streaked with flour, her clothes covered with everything else.
“You always were an extremely messy child,” Olivia remarked. “I should have sent you to the Cordon Bleu. At least there you would have learned to clean up after yourself.”
Charlie didn't even look up from the dough. “At the Cordon Bleu you have people to do the dirty work and the cleanup,” she said. “Besides, by the time I was old enough to go I was already married to Pompasse.”
“To my regret, yes,” Olivia said. There was one tiny section of counter that was uncluttered, and Olivia hoisted herself up onto it, obviously preparing for a chat. “I remember when we lived in that awful place in the suburbs, when I was married to what's-his-name. Greenwich or Rye or someplace. You were seven years old and I bought you one of those tacky little play ovens. You spent every spare minute turning out tiny little cakes that tasted like cardboard and you kept wanting me to eat them.”
“And you were on a diet and couldn't be bothered,” Charlie said.
“You're just lucky you didn't end up with an eating disorder, given that you turn to food for comfort at the drop of a hat.”
“I wouldn't call this situation âat the drop of a hat,' I turn to food preparation, not eating, and I came here to be alone,” Charlie pointed out coolly, concentrating on the dough.
“I know you did. I didn't feel like leaving you alone. Sue me. What are you going to do about Henry?”
“What do you mean?”
“You know perfectly well what I mean. The entire household does. Are you going to forgive him and take him back, or are you going to break the engagement?”
Charlie glanced at her. “I'm sure you have an opinion on that that you're just dying to tell me.”
Olivia shrugged. “I want what's best for you.”
“Sure you do.”
“Actually, I really do. We never got along, the two of us. I suppose I was just too selfish to be a mother. But that doesn't mean I don't care about you. I worry about you, Charlie. I don't want to see you make another mistake.”
Charlie didn't bother to hide her disbelief. “Don't tell me you want Henry for yourself? He's too old for you.”
“You still think I wanted Pompasse?” Olivia asked, disbelieving.
“Why else were we here? Why else did you have a screaming, raging fit when I told you we were married?”
Olivia shook her head. “I love how the young always have all the answers. Of course I intended to have an affair with him when we first came to visit. He was famous, he was fascinating, and I was in a celebrity-hunting mood. I never intended to marry him. And I certainly never intended for
to marry him.”
“I did. And you couldn't stop me.”
“I know, Charlie. And I'm sorry for that.”
Charlie jerked her head up, the dough momentarily forgotten. “What did you say?”
“I said I'm sorry I couldn't stop you. The man was obsessed with you, and when I couldn't stop it I could only hope he'd treat you like a goddess. Instead you had years of misery.”
“It wasn't misery,” she said absently, still concentrating on Olivia's words. “I don't think you've ever apologized before.”
Olivia laughed. “Haven't I? Well, I'm an arrogant bitch, there's no denying that. Not anybody's notion of an ideal mother. I'm selfish and greedy and self-absorbed, and I doubt if I ever put your well-being ahead of mine in your entire lifetime.”
“I'd agree with that.”
“But that doesn't mean I don't love you, Charlie.”
Charlie looked at her, her hands motionless in the dough. “And how do you define that love? Isn't love caring about someone, sacrificing for someone, putting their happiness ahead of your own? You've never done that in your life.”
“No, I haven't,” Olivia said. “But, nevertheless, I love you.”
Charlie straightened her shoulders. “I'm touched to hear it.”
“You're all I've got, Charlie.”