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Authors: Anne Stuart

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BOOK: The Widow
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“You're disgusting, Maguire.”

“It's one of my many charms. So is he like Pompasse? Your Henry?”

“Not in the slightest. He's a lawyer, he's well bred, well behaved, thoughtful, considerate, kind and restrained.”

“Doesn't do it for you in bed, does he?”

He'd pushed her too far but the temptation was irresistible. “Go to hell, Maguire.” Her voice was fierce. “I don't care how many governments you work for—I don't have to put up with this.”

“How old is he, sugar? I don't suppose you stole this one from your mum as well?”

“You can leave, Maguire. Right now.”

“On Saturday. After the committal service. I've got a job to do and I'm going to do it. Don't mind me—people say I'm a royal pain in the butt. I never did learn not to speak my mind.”

“It's never too late to master new skills,” she said sharply.

“Tell you what—you can have first crack at the bathroom while I move my stuff out of the room. Then you can settle down all safe and sound knowing that no one's going to bother you, either from this world or the next. Okay?”

She still wanted him gone, he could see that. He had to remember that there was a limit to how far he could push Charlie Thomas. For all her desire to keep the peace, she wasn't going to let him go too far.

“I don't want you here,” she said in a weary voice, knowing it was a losing battle.

He knew she didn't. But she would, sooner or later. He had three days to get her in bed, the one place where she'd have no defenses left at all, the one place where he could find out everything he wanted to know about Pompasse and his strange marriage and his kinky tastes. It was a dirty job but someone had to do it.

“I'm sorry,” he said, all false earnestness that she probably didn't believe. “I'll behave myself. I didn't mean to upset you. You go on up, and by the time you're ready for bed the room will be deserted. Unless that room gives you the willies, too? You must have slept there with the old guy as well….”

“It's been changed,” she said. “It's all new furniture. And no, he always came to my room. And why the hell am I telling you that?”

“You need a sympathetic ear?” he suggested.

“I need my head examined,” she shot back, suddenly fierce. “I want you out of here, Maguire. I want you to spend tomorrow getting your work done. The sooner the estate is cataloged and appraised, the better my peace of mind.”

“I've got to find the paintings and the journals first, love.”

“We'll find them,” she said grimly. “I'll help you.” She turned toward the house, dismissing him.

Before she could see his triumphant grin.

 

How in God's name was she going to survive the next few days? Charlie thought desperately. Pompasse's harem was bad enough—with Antonella's crazy accusations and Gia's rampant hostility. Throw Maguire on top of that volatile mix and she was ready to run screaming into the night.

Now that she was finally alone Charlie was famished. She found cold chicken and carrots in the huge steel refrigerator that Pompasse had ordered from Rome. The kitchen was deserted, and spotless, of course. Lauretta prided herself on both her cooking talent and her cleanliness, and Charlie had learned everything from her. She sat at the scrubbed table, eating the cold chicken and gnocchi with surprising relish. It seemed like years since she'd been hungry.

Lauretta seemed to have survived Pompasse well enough, Charlie thought, reaching for her glass of wine. Of course, she had Tomaso to help, and she was a practical country woman. Her affair with the great artist had only lasted a year, and while the paintings from that period were considered some of his best early work, she'd gone from being model and lover to housekeeper and cook with no difficulty as far as Charlie could tell. Of course, it had all been way before her time, but Lauretta and Tomaso had served Pompasse long and devotedly, seemingly happy.

There'd been Luisa's disappearance, of course. Their only child had run away when she was sixteen, never to be heard from again, and the shadows of that loss still lingered. Lauretta would never speak of it, or of her child at all, though she had become even more fiercely religious. Tomaso would talk quietly about his lost daughter when his wife was nowhere around, taking comfort in telling Charlie about the young girl who'd run away long before Charlie and her mother had ever come within Pompasse's orbit.

And Madame Antonella was senile, cranky, but hardly ruined. She'd lived her life in comfort, enjoying the respect and awe of the art world and Pompasse's household, and Aristide himself had always made it a duty to have afternoon tea with her when he was in residence.

No, Pompasse wasn't a destroyer, just, as Maguire had said, a selfish man.

She washed her dishes and set them in the wooden drying rack, then headed up to bed. The door to Pompasse's old room stood open when she reached the top of the first flight of stairs. The door to her room was solidly closed.

She approached the open door hesitantly, peeking inside to make sure it was deserted. There was no sign of Maguire, and her suitcase was sitting on the low table. He'd propped a chair under the knob of the adjoining bathroom door.

Smart-ass, she thought to herself, closing the door behind her and surveying the strange, denuded room. She didn't like the idea of him having access to her belongings, but at least she could comfort herself in the knowledge that he'd have no interest in her utilitarian white cotton underwear or anything else. Thank God she hadn't let Lauretta unpack for her. The thought of Maguire's big, strong hands picking up her clothes gave her the shivers.

She undressed, pulled on the cotton nightshirt she slept in and climbed into bed. It wasn't until she was drifting off to sleep, in the strange room, in the strange bed, that she remembered that Maguire had been sleeping there. That she was sleeping in Maguire's bed, between Maguire's sheets.

The chair was still propped under the doorknob, keeping monsters at bay. It could only keep Maguire out if he tried to come through the bathroom.

But what would keep Aristide's memory from haunting her? Ghosts could wander through walls, invade dreams, torment the living. But she didn't believe in ghosts.

And when she slept, she dreamed of Maguire.

8

M
aguire settled down in the big old bed, the Day-Timer in his hand. He'd struck pay dirt, and not where he'd expected it. He'd searched Charlie's suitcase with the care and thoroughness of a professional, coming up with little of interest. She favored jeans and sweaters and T-shirts, though they all had impressive labels. She wasn't sleeping with anyone—the plain white underwear simply solidified his belief that she was either celibate or uninterested. Sex clearly had no part in her life right now.

He'd found her leather-bound Day-Timer and filched it, knowing he'd have to slip it back into her suitcase before she noticed it was gone. It made dry reading. No emotional outbursts—it was a record of her appointments, work schedule and social engagements, mostly with the mysterious Henry. She worked surprisingly hard—she kept meticulous track of the time she put in at the restaurant, both cooking and overseeing the operation. He couldn't imagine a skinny, chilly creature like Charlie being able to cook. It was too physical an occupation for someone out of touch with her body.

Then again, he couldn't imagine her making love, either. Couldn't imagine her doing anything but sitting behind a desk in her designer sweaters and staring at him out of her exotic eyes.

He was particularly interested in the week of the nineteenth, when Pompasse died. Her schedule was devoid of an alibi—there were no dates, no work, no appointments during the five days surrounding her husband's death. He wondered if anyone had bothered to ask her where she was when the old man bit the big one? He had every intention of doing so when he got the chance.

The rest of the room had proved to hold little of interest, despite the fact that it had been kept like a shrine to Charlie's lost memory—the five-year-old clothes still hung in the closet, the drawers were still full. She used to favor a different sort of underwear, he'd noticed with great interest. Aristide's wife had worn silk and lace, in exotic colors. Aristide's widow wore cotton.

Of even more interest were the paperback romances stuck in the drawer of the bedside table. They were a greater contradiction than the silky underwear. Charlie must have once believed in passion, or at least been vaguely interested.

He turned off the light, sinking down in the bed. He didn't like the idea of Charlie and the old man doing the nasty in this bed, and he couldn't blame her for preferring the other room. He just wished he had a good excuse to join her there.

He was running out of time. It was Wednesday night—he had until Saturday at the latest to find out all the dirt he could dig up on Pompasse, Charlie and the myriad of women who still clustered around the villa. He needed to find what had happened to the lost paintings, and who had murdered the old goat. If he could come up with that information he'd be set for life.

It was possible a real insurance adjuster would appear on the doorstep, in which case he'd just have to get the hell out of there before Charlie went after him with a shovel. He had to admit the thought of seeing her startled out of her unruffled calm, blazing mad, was tempting. But he was counting on the notoriously slow workings of the Italian bureaucracy to keep him safe for a long enough interval. By the time a real insurance adjuster showed up he'd be gone.

Besides, if he had to choose between seeing Charlie lose her self-control and the big bucks that would be coming his way when he finished the book for Gregory, there was no contest.

He didn't need much sleep, and he worked best in the early hours of the day. He'd catch a few hours, then head down to the study he'd claimed as his work space and get more written. He was a journalist—he could work fast under pressure, and the bigger the delay on this the less valuable it might turn out to be. He wasn't the only tabloid reporter on the trail of this story, though he had the inside track. But in the news and trash business, timing was everything. He needed to capture Charlie on paper, now that he'd met her. He needed to describe her eyes, the long, slender body, the touch-me-not calm to her that needed to be shaken free. He needed to understand both her mysterious strength and her indefinable uncertainty. He needed to capture her in words.

And then maybe she wouldn't haunt him.

 

Charlie woke early, before anyone else. She showered quickly, half-afraid that Maguire would wander in while she was undressed, but the room beyond the adjoining bathroom door was silent. She thought he would have been the kind of man who snored, but the night had been pleasantly silent.

Even Lauretta and Tomaso were still asleep—a small blessing. She loved them dearly, but she liked to make her own coffee, and Lauretta would want to weep and talk about Pompasse, and at least for one morning Charlie didn't want to talk about her dead husband.

Where the hell had those paintings disappeared to? Had he sold them? He couldn't have—his work was highly valuable for a living artist, and the kind of money they'd bring in would make news. Would he have given them away? Not Pompasse. He reveled in the fame and money—he knew his own worth to the last penny and cherished the power it brought him. He wouldn't have given anything away unless he'd had an ulterior motive.

She had no idea what he'd been painting in the last five years. Probably dour portraits of Gia.

She'd done her best to avoid news of the art world, but there'd been no new records set for a work by a living artist. Not since
Charlie in Her Dressing Gown.

It should have embarrassed her, but then, Pompasse had painted her in every state of dress and undress. She remembered sitting for the damned thing, out on the terrace with the sunlight caressing her damp skin. He'd seen her coming from the shower and insisted she pose for him when she hadn't posed in months. He wanted her skin and hair wet, the robe falling off her shoulders, exposing her tanned skin. And she'd complied, even to the point of letting him spray her with water when the sun dried her hair and face.

It had been a masterpiece, they said. The skin tones were worthy of a Renaissance master. If it hadn't been for that painting she might never have left him.

But she had been young, and still capable of being childishly flattered by all the attention it got. She'd read the newspapers, the magazines, the fawning praise and learned critique, and she'd preened like a teenager—until she'd read the description in the
Art News of Italy.

“Much has been made of the glorious use of texture in the model's skin tones, but what truly makes
Charlie in Her Dressing Gown
a masterpiece and Pompasse the foremost living painter is the expression in the model's eyes. Pompasse has captured her doubts, her sexual ambiguity, her desperate attempts at serenity. It has always been said that the eyes are the window to the soul, and the soul Pompasse has captured is empty, helpless, completely dependent on whoever views the painting.”

She'd left the next morning.

They all assumed it was because he'd left her bed for Gia's a year earlier. Her mother thought her pride was damaged, Pompasse was certain he'd broken her heart and pleasure warred with panic inside him. He'd been trying to make her jealous for years, and now he thought he had succeeded beyond his wildest dreams.

But Pompasse's infidelities had nothing to do with it. She hadn't cared when he left her bed, she'd been desperately relieved. She hadn't cared when he brought Gia into the household.

His betrayal had been far worse. She kept remembering the old story about primitive people who were afraid of cameras. They thought the photographer stole their souls.

That's what Pompasse had done. Not stolen it, exactly—she'd handed it to him on a silver platter and he paraded his trophy for the world to see. Anyone who looked at that painting would see what a lost, empty shell of a human being she'd become. But far worse was accepting the knowledge herself. That she'd given herself away, till there was nothing but a pretty shell remaining.

So she'd run. It was past time to reclaim her life, her soul, and she'd found them in New York. Nothing on earth could lure her back, not threats, not her mother's constant phone calls, not Pompasse's pathetic suicide attempts. Gia would take good care of him. So would the other women who still surrounded him. She was the one who escaped and she would never go back, even if a part of her soul still remained in Tuscany. The part that Pompasse had stolen from her.

She shook herself, as if to rid herself of the power of memories. That was one painting she never wanted to find. Fortunately, or unfortunately, Pompasse had sold it to a private collector, and she had no idea where it was now. At least it wasn't on view for the world to stare at and judge, though photos of it still cropped up in articles about Pompasse. Some twisted soul could gloat over it in private, and she could forget that lost little girl ever existed.

Even if she knew that she was still hiding, somewhere deep inside her cool defenses.

She liked her coffee strong, black and sweet, and she poured herself a mug, shoving her still damp hair back from her face. One of her favorite things to do at La Colombala was drink coffee on the terrace, but this morning the memories were too strong. She would curl up in one of the huge leather chairs in the study and drink it there, looking out the back windows up toward the ruins of the old church.

She moved silently along the stone floors on bare feet. The door to the study was half closed, and she pushed it open, then paused. She'd forgotten that Maguire had claimed the space for his own. The intruder sat at Pompasse's desk, hunched over a laptop computer, his face intent in the glow from the screen, his fingers flying. He wasn't a touch typist, but he was incredibly fast, which seemed odd to her.

He had headphones on, and the music was so loud she could hear the muffled strains. Rock and roll. Loud, noisy rock and roll as he pounded on the keys of the laptop.

He didn't even notice her, he was so intent on whatever he was typing. She took a sip of her coffee, watching him. He was rumpled, unshaven, totally lost in his work, and he reminded her of someone. It took her a moment to realize who it was. He was young and good-looking in a rough sort of way, she supposed, and Pompasse had been old and elegant. And yet Maguire had something of the same expression Pompasse had had when he was in the midst of painting. Yet insurance reports were a far cry from creativity. How could a man get lost in something so dry?

She pushed away from the door and entered the room, but he was still unaware of her presence. He didn't even realize he was being watched. His attention was elsewhere as he stared intently at the computer screen. She came up behind him.

She saw her name on the screen. Others as well, words that didn't seem to belong in an insurance adjuster's report, but a second later he slammed the lid down on the computer, ripped off the earphones and turned to glare at her.

“What the hell do you think you're doing, sneaking up on me like that?” he demanded.

“Walking through my husband's house,” she replied, taking a sip of coffee. “And I made plenty of noise. What is that awful stuff you're listening to?”

“Metallica. I work best listening to heavy metal.”

“Writing insurance reports?”

“Something's gotta make them interesting,” he replied. “Is there any more of that coffee?”

“In the kitchen. Help yourself.” Anyone else, even Gia, and she would have offered to get it for them. But not Maguire. Besides, she wanted to see what he was writing.

He moved back from the table, pushed a button on the portable compact disk player and the noise stopped. “Have a listen if you've a mind to,” he said cheerfully, and left the room. Leaving her alone with the computer.

The kitchen was a good ways from the study, but Charlie didn't hesitate. She set her half-empty cup of coffee down and moved behind the desk, lifting the lid of the computer.

Cartoon figures danced across the screen. Wile E. Coyote and the Road Runner in their endless chase. Odd that Maguire would have that as a screen saver, but then, Maguire was a difficult man to figure out.

She pushed a key, but instead of bringing the text back she was rewarded with a blank screen. And a demand for a password.

By the time he returned she was curled up in the leather chair, both hands wrapped around her coffee mug, wishing it were Maguire's neck. He sat back down at the closed computer. “Find out anything interesting?” he asked lazily.

She considered denying everything but Maguire was doing his best to unsettle her, and the least she could do was respond in kind.

“That you like Warner Brothers cartoons and you're paranoid enough to need a password,” she said. “I didn't have enough time to get any further.”

“You think you can crack my password? I doubt it. I change it every day or so,” he said.

“Why?”

“To keep nosy little girls like you out of my business.”

“I'm not little, I'm not a girl, and it happens to be my business as well, doesn't it?”

“Honey, you're like Peter Pan. I don't care how old you are, you've never grown up.”

She managed a very convincing laugh. “If you think I'm childish then you haven't been in this household very long.”

BOOK: The Widow
12.33Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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