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Authors: Anne Stuart

The Widow (9 page)

BOOK: The Widow
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“You're not childish. You're a child.”

“Fuck you.” The words came out totally unexpected, shocking her.

It only seemed to amuse him. “You ever said that to anyone before?”

“No,” she admitted.

“You ought to. Starting with me, and going right on down the line to anyone who annoys you. You're someone who hasn't told the world to piss off, and you need to.”

“Thank you for that sensitive analysis of my character,” she said in an icy voice. “Anything else you want to add?”

“You make a great cup of coffee.”

“Yes, I do,” she shot back. “I'm also an excellent cook.”

“You'll have to convince me on that one.”

“I'm not cooking for you, Maguire. I want to get you out of here as soon as possible.”

“Why? Do I bother you?” he asked in his soft, rough voice.

They both knew the answer. He bothered the hell out of her, but she wasn't about to admit it. “I need the space. I'm expecting a full house for the funeral.”

“Then help me find the journals. They'll tell me what paintings are missing, and they may even reveal what he did with them. The sooner I find them the sooner I'm done.”

“I've got things to do….”

“You want me out of here? I'm not leaving till I catalog everything Pompasse owned. Including his women.”

“He didn't own me, Maguire.”

“Body and soul, babe.”

She stared at him stonily. “All right,” she said. “We'll start in the old church.”

He started to protest, then nodded. “When?”

She set her empty mug down on the delicate French table that had come from an old château. The table was spindly, just a bit unsteady, and the earthenware mug looked out of place on the intricately painted top. “There's no time like the present,” she said. “If we find them right away you can have them cataloged and be gone by nightfall.”

“Honey, I'm good but I'm not that good,” he said. “I like to take my time when it comes to beauty. Give it all the attention it deserves.”

“Is that a sexual innuendo?” She was getting tired of his double meanings.

“Only if you see it as one, babe. Sex is in the eye of the beholder.”

“Is it?”

He came around the table, moving toward her. He hadn't shaved in several days—obviously he was one of those men who didn't think daily shaving was necessary. Henry didn't even have much of a beard and yet she knew for a fact that he shaved twice a day. He was a very fastidious man.

Maguire probably knew that his stubble only made him more attractive. He leaned over her, and she could see the green in his eyes. Annoying, she thought. She'd always liked green eyes.

“Then you're a blind woman, honey,” he said in a soft, seductive voice.

She didn't move, trapped by his voice, his eyes, his body. He was too close, looming over her, and she felt the familiar tendrils of panic start to build inside her. Combined with something else, something odd and clenching that had nothing to do with fear.

“Back off, Maguire,” she said in a cool voice.

To her amazement he did. But the wry smile on his face was even more disturbing. “I'm ready if you are, Charlie,” he said.

“For what?” she snapped.

“For searching the old chapel. Isn't that what we decided to do?” he asked innocently.

She stood up, but he didn't back away, and she was much too close to him. He was taller than she was, but not by much, and their eyes were almost level. She had to get him the hell out of there, as fast as she could. She had enough stress in her life right now—she didn't need a testosterone-poisoned Australian making her even more unsettled.

“Yes,” she said. “And we won't stop until we've found them.”

But Maguire only smiled.


n centuries past La Colombala had been the center of a thriving little hamlet, complete with its own marketplace and church. But time had eroded the stone buildings. The people had left, for war, for factory work, for more prosperous times. When Pompasse had bought the place in the 1970s he'd had most of the ruined old houses torn down. He'd kept the sturdiest ones, turning one into a cottage for Madame Antonella, another a place for Lauretta and Tomaso. He'd left the church to tumble into disrepair and decay. It amused his artistic, atheistic sensibilities, he often said. He saw it as the forced faith of his childhood tumbling into ruins.

But Charlie had always loved the place. The path that led up to it was steep in places, though there was a more winding way that looked like nothing so much as a goat path. If goats went to mass.

When Charlie was young she would wait until Pompasse was occupied with something before she could escape. Even when he no longer painted her, no longer slept with her, he kept close tabs on her, and it was only on rare, precious occasions that she managed to slip away. Charlie had always hiked the steep trail through the towering cypresses and she would sit beneath the open roof and feel safe, protected.

She never considered how odd that was. In Pompasse's home she was so protected that she was practically smothered. He allowed no one to talk to her, he wanted to know where she was and what she'd been doing, what she was reading, what she was buying, what she was dreaming and what she was thinking. And she'd told him.

Some of it.

The rest she kept for the empty church with the shattered windows letting in the clear Tuscan light.

The early-morning air was cool and damp, and she took Maguire the steep way, hoping his affection for cigarettes would have him wheezing before they were halfway there. He was disgustingly fit, and if she hadn't been so set on ignoring him he would have probably kept up a running conversation.

She hated having to bring him up here. Hated to spoil the ruined sanctity of the place with his annoying presence. But it was a small price to pay to get rid of him. Once they found the journals and the missing paintings, and once he left, then she could reclaim it. At least for the short time she was here.

“What's that over there?” he demanded. He wasn't even panting—he must be in better shape than she'd realized. And then she remembered what he looked like in a towel, and she realized he was in very good shape indeed. And she didn't want to be thinking about that.

Charlie took a surreptitious gulp of air. She'd forgotten how steep it was on this rocky path. She really should have taken him the longer way, but that would have meant more time in his company, and she wanted to avoid that.

She glanced toward the little cottage. “That's where Madame Antonella lives.”

“The old bat? How long's she been there?”

“Since Pompasse bought the place. She was his first model, and she never left his side.”

“Not many women did,” he said. “He must have been quite the stud. Ruined you for other men, did he?”

She turned. The path fell away beneath him, and she could look out over the rich valley. “One push, Maguire, and with luck you'd break your neck.”

“Is that how Pompasse was murdered?”

It was like a slap in the face. “He wasn't murdered, Maguire. He fell. Madame Antonella is senile—she doesn't know what she's talking about.”

“She may be senile but she makes sense. Admit it, Charlie. There are too many people who wanted Pompasse dead. Including you.”

“I didn't want him dead. I didn't care. I'd left him. Divorced him, or so I thought.” The moment the words were out of her mouth she could have bitten her tongue, and of course he was on them immediately.

“So you thought?” he echoed. “He never signed the papers? Sounds like the Pompasse we all know and love. So he kept you on a string, after all, just like all the others. Now, why doesn't that surprise me?”

“Leave it, Maguire,” she said wearily. “All that matters is that I thought I was divorced. I hadn't seen him in five years—he was part of my past.”

“Not yet, he isn't. Maybe when you bury his ashes in the vineyard he will be. Or maybe he'll never let you go. You'll be like Madame Antonella, crazy as a loon, wandering around mourning your lost Pompasse.”

“At least you won't be around to witness it,” she said in her calm voice. “Do you want to keep baiting me or do you want to look for the goddamned paintings?”

He grinned, and she cursed herself for letting him see that he'd gotten to her. But the fact was, he had. Easily. He knew just what buttons to push to make her say and do things that she was usually too self-contained to do.

“We'll look for the goddamned paintings,” he said.

The church hadn't changed much in the last five years. The early-morning sun cast a warm, rosy glow over the pale stone, and it sat there in the tangled underbrush, a simple country chapel with no airs or graces. Farmers and peasants had worshiped there for centuries—the upper classes had driven down into Geppi to attend the huge cathedral. Whenever practicing Catholics had joined their transient household, they, too, would drive down to Geppi, and Lauretta, Tomaso and Madame Antonella never missed Sunday mass.

But this was a different kind of church. One that belonged to the earth, to nature, to the sky pouring in from the open roof, to the smell of leaves and dirt and the warmth of the sun. And Charlie always used to think that if God wanted to hang out anywhere, he'd be close to the earth in a place like this, rather than in the stultified, incense-laden air of Our Lady of Geppi Cathedral.

She paused in the entryway. The wooden doors were long gone, leaving the building open to the elements and whatever wild animals happened to wander by. Maguire was just behind her, not even short of breath, and she realized with a start that she'd never come here with anyone. She'd always been alone.

Just as she would have preferred to be alone now. The church was her secret, sacred spot—she didn't want to be sharing it with the interloper. Particularly one as disturbing to her equilibrium as Maguire was.

Maguire, with his usual sensitivity, simply walked past her into the interior. “Where do you think he might have hidden them?”

She had no choice but to follow. “I didn't say he'd hidden them. He must have had some reason for removing them from the farmhouse, and this is a logical place to have put them.”

“I wouldn't think so. It's damp and exposed up here. Not the best place to keep oil paintings. Wouldn't he be more likely to have kept them in the apartment in Florence? Or rented some kind of storage facility?”

“But that would have required getting help, and no one in the household has any idea what happened to the paintings. According to Lauretta, they just seemed to vanish one by one. Pompasse had to carry them someplace, and this is about as far as he could have managed.”

“Maybe. Who says Pompasse did it?”

“Because he would have raised holy hell if anyone else had tampered with his precious paintings,” she said. “It's only logical.”

“Good point. But then, life isn't always logical.”

“Tell me about it,” she muttered.

The sun was streaming through the open roof, and dust motes danced on the beams of light. Maguire had moved on ahead, and she saw that the hole in the center of the floor had caved in, making passage impossible. Except for the board that someone had placed across it, and Maguire was already navigating it with careless speed. He stopped at the other end, looking at her quizzically. “Are you coming? There's no other way around it.”

“What about the back entrance? There used to be a door….”

“I've already poked around here and there's no other way. Just rubble. You've got a choice, lady. Either walk the plank or go back to the farmhouse.”

“Walk the plank,” she repeated. She looked across the great gaping hole at him. In the sunlight he looked very much like a pirate, with his unshaven face and shaggy hair, his piercing eyes and rumpled clothing. No peg leg or eye patch or parrot on his shoulder, though. Maybe being a pirate was a state of mind.

“Are you afraid of heights?” he taunted her when she still hesitated. “You were scrambling up the hillside like a mountain goat—I wouldn't think a steep drop would make you nervous.”

She was tired of arguing with him. She started across the plank, too fast, and it wobbled beneath her. For a moment she froze, terrified, only to have Maguire step onto the end, grab her and haul her to the other side.

He didn't let go of her, not for a moment, and she was still too shaken from the experience to notice that his hands were on her. Touching her. And then she did.

She jerked her face up to his, and then stepped away. He let her go, of course. But she could still feel his hands on her arms. She didn't like to be touched. Not by men like him.

“I assume you've checked this level,” she said, refusing to show how shaken she was, “but we may as well go through the rooms again, just to be on the safe side.”

“Lead on,” he said amiably. “I just hope we don't find anything.”

“I thought we wanted to find the paintings? Otherwise why are we here?”

“I do. But not here. It's cold and damp, and God knows what kind of damage they could have incurred. Pompasse's estate is already looking shaky—if those paintings don't show up then you're going to have a rough time of it. They were some of his most valuable pieces.”

“Do you know which ones are missing?”

“As far as I can tell there are three famous ones that are unaccounted for.
Charlie When She Left, Awakening
Amber Moon.

“Those are all of me,” she said, uneasy.

“So they are. The question is, are any later ones missing, as well? Lauretta and Tomaso say no, just those three. I'm not convinced.”

“Why would my paintings be the ones that were taken?”

“I can think of a number of reasons. Maybe somebody doesn't like you,” he suggested cheerfully. “Or maybe they're worth more than the others. Money talks, you know.”

“I don't like it,” she said.

“Neither do I. That's a lot of money unaccounted for.”

“Sweet of you to worry. If the paintings are here they wouldn't have been here long enough for them to be destroyed. I'll worry about the estate—your job is simply to detail the assets. Isn't it?” She kept thinking about that computer screen, with her name on it. Not the widow, not Madame Pompasse or Ms. Thomas. Charlie.

“Sure thing, love,” he said.

She turned. “You want to stop calling me that? Love, honey, sweetheart? It's condescending and annoying. You know perfectly well I'm not your love or your sweetheart.”

“Maybe it's wishful thinking.”

“Yeah, right,” she scoffed. “And don't call me lady, either.”

“Ah, but there's no doubt that's exactly what you are. An overbred lady faced with a down-and-dirty bloke like me. It obviously drives your fastidious soul crazy.”

“I couldn't care less about you!” she snapped.

“Glad to hear it, love.”

Charlie turned from him with a suppressed snarl, giving up.

She hadn't really expected to find anything on the first floor—Maguire struck her as a thorough man, and he would have searched the place. Not that he couldn't have missed something, given the rubble of stonework that cluttered the shattered ruins of the building. But he hadn't found the stairs to the lower level, the old catacombs. It was blocked by fallen roof timbers, hidden in the shadows, and he hadn't even realized there was a door there, one of the few still in existence in the old church.

Together they cleared the way, the dust rising around them. The door was stuck, but Maguire used brute force, yanking it open, and another shower of dust covered him. He looked less like a pirate and more like a ghost, and in other circumstances Charlie might have been amused. Not here, not now.

“Watch out for the rats,” she said as she started down the dark, winding stairway.

“Don't you think we need an electric torch or something?” he asked, not moving. “It's dark as pitch down there.”

“You want to go back and get one? I'm not afraid of the dark, but if you have problems…”

He started after her down the narrow stone stairs, and she let herself grin in the darkness, feeling childishly smug. In the end Maguire was simply a man—easy enough to bait when his pride was involved.

“Your eyes get used to it,” she said as she felt her way down the uneven stone stairs. In fact, it was darker than she remembered, and she kept thinking her foot was going to connect with something long and skinny and furry. She couldn't imagine why rats would live in the old church—there was nothing to eat there, but she knew for a fact that they did.

By the time her foot reached the rough flooring of the bottom level her eyes had begun to adjust. Light filtered through the hole in the floor overhead; beams of light from the warm Tuscan sun that flowed through the nonexistent roof. Originally the area had been a large open space, but now it was filled with rocks and rubble.

BOOK: The Widow
3.36Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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