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Authors: Anne Stuart

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BOOK: The Widow
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Lauretta didn't blink. “Of course,
cara.
I was planning roasted chicken for dinner, but if you have any other preference…?”

“No, that's fine,” she said absently. “My fiancé will be coming in a couple of days, as well as my mother. I hope that won't be too great an inconvenience?”

“It's what I'm here for, Signora Charlie. Will your fiancé be sharing your room?”

“No,” Charlie said flatly. She was half tempted to launch into a dozen explanations, of how she and Henry had chosen to wait, how it might be disrespectful to Pompasse's memory, how she liked her personal space. She resisted her need to explain.

Lauretta simply nodded, accepting the answer. “Would you like me to strip the bed for you, Signora Charlie? I'll be happy to.”

“That's all right, Lauretta. It's easy enough for me to do. Do you want any help in the kitchen? I still love to cook, you know. I even have my own restaurant in New York.”

“I know,” Lauretta said, beaming proudly. “But today is your first day back at home, and you need to rest. Tomaso and I will cook dinner, and all you will have to do is enjoy.”

Looking at Maguire and Gia across the table, no doubt, Charlie thought. It wasn't an appetizing thought, but she smiled at Lauretta, anyway.
“Grazie,”
she murmured.

“Have a good rest,
cara.
Sweet dreams.”

Charlie looked at the bed. For some reason nightmares seemed more likely in a massive old bed that held so many memories.

But she was back, and Pompasse was gone. There would be no one left who could hurt her, not anymore. All she needed was a little nap and then she could deal with anything, including Pompasse's angry women and the annoying Maguire.

Anything at all.

5

S
o that was Madame Pompasse up close, Maguire thought, watching her race out of the vineyard as if the hounds of hell were after her. She wasn't what he'd expected—he thought she'd be prettier. She was too tall, too thin for his tastes. Years of living in Italy had made him appreciate buxom women, and Charlie Thomas Pompasse was built like a model. She needed to be fattened up.

Her face was narrow, angular, with those strange golden eyes that had been so luminous in Pompasse's paintings. They were less vulnerable now, more guarded, and the tawny hair had been pulled back from her face in a sleek chignon. She looked like what she was—the wealthy widow of a world-famous artist.

For some reason he thought she'd be different face-to-face. When he'd looked at her from across the crowded church he'd felt an odd connection. Even attraction. He reached in his jacket and pulled out the mangled postcard. He couldn't figure out why he was carrying it with him—it wasn't his style to be impulsive or sentimental. But the reproduction of the portrait fascinated him. He'd done a blitz of research before showing up at the villa, and
Charlie When She Left
was legendary. He stared down into Charlie's lost golden eyes, so different from the cool gaze he'd just looked into. And then he shoved the postcard back into his pocket, crumpling it further.

He'd had a busy few days. First the rushed trip to New York, then a flurry of last-minute research when he'd gotten back. For once Gregory had come through with a decent amount of information, including a packet of postcards with Pompasse's work on them dating back to his early years in Paris. Including three postcards featuring the most well-known portraits from Pompasse's Gold Period.

Two of which were hanging in Pompasse's apartment. One he'd never seen before, and he'd been half tempted to crumple up the shiny print and toss it. He stopped himself, staring down at the tiny rectangle of glossy color.

Mrs. Pompasse again, older this time. She was wearing some sort of ratty sweater, though he suspected Pompasse had dressed her in designer clothes, and her luminous golden eyes were no longer innocent. Still wary, but by the time this portrait was painted she had known what to be wary of. There was a “to hell with you” twist to her soft mouth, a firmness to her jaw that hadn't been there before. But he could still see the warmth in her shadowed eyes.

He turned it over to read the back.
Charlie When She Left
was the name of the painting, and it was quite recent. Only five years old. And according to Maguire's expert sources, everything since then had been garbage.

Had the old man just let her go, or had he tried to get her back? Maybe he had hoped Gia would provide a suitable distraction and he wouldn't miss Charlie. If so, it hadn't worked. The last Maguire had heard, Pompasse had moved on to someone even younger, more innocent.

Charlie's eyes still haunted him. The real ones, with their defenses in place. He wanted to spark some kind of emotion, and he'd been as obnoxious as he could be when she'd found him in the vineyard. Well, maybe he was capable of being even more obnoxious, but it would have been a stretch. She was the most self-contained ice princess he'd ever met, an anathema to him. She should have been a Nordic blonde, not a tawny cat.

He could exert considerable charm when he chose to, but he'd known instinctively that someone like Charlie would be immune to something as facile as charm. He wouldn't be able to lie and flirt and flatter his way into her confidence—she was too well guarded. The best angle of attack was to act as if he didn't give a shit.

He would have to walk a fine line if he was going to carry off his impersonation. He knew as well as anyone that he wasn't the typical insurance type, and he had to remember to tone down his natural instincts just enough to keep her from throwing him off the property.

But he still wanted, needed, to keep her off guard. She was a strong woman, a survivor—he could tell by the way she carried herself, by the determination in her generous mouth. She had all her defenses and boundaries in place, and it was going to require a concerted effort on his part to break past them.

He hadn't even been able to annoy her, though for some contrary reason he'd done his best. He'd annoy the hell out of her once she found out why he was really here. Of course, he expected to be long gone by then, so he wouldn't have the pleasure of watching Madame Pompasse explode. He'd have to settle for his imagination.

Maguire stripped off his jacket and tossed it over his shoulder. It was October, for Christ's sake. Why the hell was it so goddamn hot?

And why was he feeling guilty? Mrs. Pompasse could take care of herself—beneath that cool exterior he suspected that she was as tough as nails. But he'd looked into her remote golden eyes and suddenly felt like a piece of dog shit, forcing his way in here under false pretenses, lying, as he always lied. He'd looked at her and had wanted to tell her he was sorry. Tell her he wouldn't use the dirt he'd been amassing so steadily. He'd wanted to…

He wasn't going to think about the crazy things he suddenly wanted to do with the ice princess. He was staying put. No way would he miss the story of his lifetime. No way. Gregory would kill him. His old pal Molly would rise up in her grave and kick his sorry butt. He'd spent ten years moving from war zone to war zone, cataloging horrors and tragedy and disaster and the deaths of innocents. And then he'd turned his back on it, burned out so profoundly that he wasn't sure he could even keep living. When what little money he'd saved had run out he'd hooked up with the first dirty job he could find, one that happened to be for Marc Gregory's sleazy tabloid.

Dealing with the lives and deaths of the selfish rich was a walk in the park compared to the horrors of war, and he intended to use everything he could find and then get the hell out. Gregory had promised him the moon and more, and if there was one thing Gregory was willing to pay for, it was sleaze. He could see a book, excerpts in tabloids all over the world. He could see a bloody fortune coming his way.

And he told himself he didn't give a rat's ass if the way to riches was strewn with the bodies of Pompasse's castoffs. Including the self-controlled, luminous widow who for some goddamned reason he wanted to touch.

He started back toward the house, taking his time. He had the perfect excuse for ferreting around the place. There were valuable paintings missing, as well as important records, and as a so-called insurance consultant it was his duty to find out what had happened to them. He already had a pretty clear sense of Pompasse's financial picture, and it wasn't good. The widow was going to be damned unhappy when she discovered what kind of mess the old man had left her. Too damned bad he wasn't going to be around to comfort her in her distress.

But then, she'd have her fiancé. He didn't know why that annoyed the hell out of him, but it did. She'd left Pompasse years ago—a woman like that wouldn't be long without a man to look out for her. He wondered what kind of man she'd chosen this time. A Euro-stud with rippling pecs and not much brainpower? A New York stockbroker dressed in Armani who'd made his first million by age thirty?

He was betting on the stockbroker. Someone young and ruthless, as Pompasse had been old and ruthless. A worthy adversary for someone like Maguire.

Though there was no damned reason why he'd have anything to do with Charlie's fiancé. Charlie's intended wouldn't have had anything to do with Pompasse.

Maguire reached in his pocket for his cigarettes, only to come up with a crumpled, empty packet, and he began to curse with the fluid invective he'd learned on a thousand battlefields. The only one who could swear better than he could was Molly, his old photographer, and she was dead. She'd laugh if she saw the mess he'd gotten himself into, and a reluctant, wry smile curved his mouth.

It was a helluva time to give up cigarettes, right when he was in the middle of the story of his lifetime. He'd already given up drinking a couple of years ago, finding he couldn't control it. It wasn't fair that he had to fight still another addiction. On top of that, now he had Charlie Thomas floating in his subconscious, getting on his nerves as well. It was going to be one god-awful week.

He should be used to it by now. The best stories never came easy, and he ought to count his blessings. He was living, if not in the lap of luxury, at least in beautiful surroundings. Lauretta was a good cook, Tuscany was gorgeous, and something was making him feel more alive than he'd felt in years.

It was the promise of a good story, he told himself. It was the thought of all the money he'd make from it, after too many lean years.

And it was the challenge, the temptation of Charlie Thomas, shut off from everyone and everything. She held secrets even he couldn't begin to guess at. Hell, he'd slept with women before for the sake of a story. Women liked to talk when they were in a postcoital daze, and he was very good at getting them into that place. With any luck, all he had to do was fuck Charlie's brains out and she'd tell him everything she knew about Pompasse.

He could do it. He could rise to the occasion, he thought with a wry smile, and enjoy seeing if he could make the ice princess scream.

Hell, he ought to sleep with all Pompasse's castoffs if he were going to be really thorough, though he drew the line at senile Madame Antonella. And he could probably get just as much information out of Lauretta if he simply complimented her cooking. That way he wouldn't have to risk Tomaso's ire.

He didn't want to sleep with Gia, either. She'd already dismissed him as not being worth her time, but it wouldn't take much to convince her otherwise. She was young and healthy, and it would be a piece of cake to appeal to her animal nature.

But the problem was, she didn't appeal to his. And he doubted she'd know much, either—like most beautiful young women she was completely self-absorbed. Probably anything she knew about Pompasse would have only been in relation to herself.

And he doubted that she'd blurt out that she'd killed him when she came.

No, he had other ways of pumping Gia than the old-fashioned way. He didn't think she was the one who killed Pompasse, but she might very well know who did. Or at least know something that could lead him to the killer, assuming one existed. He still had no proof other than his own sure instincts. It would be a damned shame if it were an accident, after all. Nothing sold books so well as murder.

He'd work on Gia if he had to, and even sleep with her if it was necessary.

But in the meantime he was more interested in seeing what he could get from the widow.

He skirted the building, moving around back to the narrow path leading up to the abandoned church. He could hear voices from the studio, women's voices, and he leaned against the back of the building, well hidden, trying to make out their words. It was too good a chance to miss. He recognized Gia's strident tones even through the thick stone walls, and the soft responses could only belong to Charlie.

But a moment later he heard the slamming of the studio door, and then nothing but silence. A missed chance, but there would be others. It was Wednesday—by Saturday Pompasse's ashes would be buried and Maguire would be out of there. Much longer and he'd be caught, and Charlie Thomas wouldn't be the sort to take kindly to a viper in her midst.

If he couldn't find out who killed Pompasse and why in the next four days, then he wasn't the reporter he thought he was.

And he had no illusions. He was a ruthless bastard, a heartless user when it came to people. He cared about no one and nothing, but he was a damned good reporter, whether it was dealing with international conflicts or Euro-trash. He already knew a great many of Pompasse's dirty little secrets, his obsession with young girls, the disturbing number of suicides and disappearances among his former models and lovers, the games he'd played and the astonishing amount of money he'd squandered.

But he still didn't know where the missing paintings were. And of equal importance, who killed Pompasse and why. Once he discovered the answers he could leave, with or without nailing the repressed Charlie Thomas.

Hell, maybe she wasn't repressed, he thought, climbing up the narrow, twisting path by the olive grove. Maybe she just hated him at first sight and didn't mind showing it. He was used to rubbing women the wrong way when they first met. He was hardly the lady's type—he was brash, working-class, no-bullshit and no-charm. She probably saw him as some kind of lower-class oaf.

And he saw her as the lady of the manor. Just the sort of thing to incite his distrust of class issues. He wondered whether her old man had given her a good time in that bed upstairs. Or whether her new one did.

He knew he could. She'd tell him about Pompasse, once he had her underneath him. She'd tell him anything he wanted to know. She was that kind of woman—she held everything in reserve, wary, protected, until she finally gave in. And then she'd give it all.

And he would be a right bastard to take it. But take it he would, before she even realized what she'd lost.

It wasn't the first time he'd climbed up the hillside to the ruins of the old church. Tuscany, and indeed, all of Italy, was littered with churches, from huge cathedrals to tiny little wayside chapels. The chapel had served the farmhouse that was now La Colombala, as well as the surrounding countryside, but World War Two bombing had put an end to most of the building, including a good portion of the roof and two of the walls. There were still remnants of the place left—some underground storerooms, a couple of hallways, and half the sanctuary sheltered under the remains of the old roofing, while the rest of the building was open to the stars.

BOOK: The Widow
8.64Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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