Authors: Jane Godman
Not betrothed, but beguiled
In artistic circles she is the Divine Dita, Paris’s most sought-after nude model. But now she’s not so much posing as playing a role: fiancée to the next earl of Athal. The charade is a favor to Dita’s friend, Eddie Jago, a dissolute painter…and the aforementioned heir. As deceptions go, it is innocent compared to what will come.
On the grim Cornish coast, from the ashes of a ruined castle rises the Jagos’ sumptuous new manor house. The fresh-hewn stone, however, cannot absorb the blood of centuries or quiet the echoes of past crimes. Dita struggles to decipher the family: the infirm earl and his inscrutable wife; resentful Eddie; sheltered sister Eleanor. And Cad: the handsome second son whose reputation is spotless in business—scandalous everywhere else.
Drawn by friendship, ensnared by lust, Dita uncovers a sordid tangle of murder, desire and madness. It will lay her bare as no portraitist has done before.
Echoes in the Darkness
To Stewart, Michael and Debbie for their endless patience and forbearance.
Table of Contents
My journey to Tenebris started many months before I actually crossed the channel to England. I suppose it really began on the day I found a very beautiful, very naked man asleep in my apartment.
It was one of those pure, perfect April days when the Parisian sky was endlessly blue, skylarks sang and sunlight glinted on the crowded rooftops. The scent of just-baked bread and freshly poured coffee lingered in the still air. An accordion player provided a wailing accompaniment to the chatter of café goers as they sipped cloudy Pernod or rolled aromatic cigarettes. A group of young men, clad in the studied bohemian garb affected by poets and artists, hailed me by name as I ran lightly past them. I waved a hand and hurried on. The tiny attic rooms I rented were close to the Élysée Theatre in the Montmartre district. The cobbled streets were steep and, panting, I burst in through my door, casting my hat and cloak aside. I had lived here since I first arrived in Paris, almost a year ago. It was beginning to feel like home, and the thought was bittersweet.
I must have let out a squeal, or made another sound of surprise, because the stark-naked man lying full-length on my sofa awakened. I had time to notice the striking blue of his eyes and that his bare limbs were long and well muscled, before he abruptly sat up, managing to cover his exposed groin with an embroidered cushion. The thought that it was hardly the action of a dangerous attacker alleviated my shock slightly. We regarded each other warily before he burst out laughing.
“How did you get in here?” I demanded. Later, I would look back and wonder why it didn’t occur to me to be afraid.
“You should lock your door,” he said, yawning to show very white teeth.
“I always do! And I know I did just that before I left here this morning,” I informed him. It was true. No one had more cause than I to be meticulous about security.
He laughed again, a little sheepishly this time. My memory processed the fact that I had seen him before. He was one of the group of younger, wilder artists who frequented the theatres and bars of Montmartre. I had noticed him because of his height and remarkable good looks. “Very well, perhaps I should have said ‘You should make sure your door can’t be unlocked by anyone with half a brain and a penknife.’” The subtle trace of an English accent caught my ears.
Those words should, of course, have been my cue to run screaming to the gendarmes. But, bizarrely, I didn’t feel at risk from my unclothed intruder, and I like to think I have a well-honed sense of danger. So, instead of fleeing, I asked the most incongruous of the many questions that were racing around my head. “Why have you taken all your clothes off?”
“They’re wet,” he pointed out. And he was right; every item was soaked through. He had flung all of his discarded garments haphazardly onto a chair, and a puddle was forming on the floorboards beneath. I clicked my tongue disapprovingly and busied myself arranging his jacket, shirt and trousers so that they might actually begin to dry out. He lay back again, still holding the strategically placed cushion, and watched me.
“And, if it’s not an impertinent question,” I said, with an attempt at sarcasm, “might I also ask what you are doing here?”
“It was a wager,” he said, as though that explained everything. And, in a way, it did. The group I had seen him with were heavy drinkers, wild to a fault and legendary gamblers.
“You broke into a complete stranger’s apartment for a wager?”
“The bet was not to break in, but to persuade you to let me paint your portrait,” he explained. “Your face, I mean. You weren’t here, so I decided to wait for you.”
I had been bustling about in a diffident, housewifely manner, straightening chairs and hanging my hat and cloak on a peg, but I stopped at that and turned to look at him. “I pose for nudes,” I said quietly. But he knew that. I remembered the first time I’d seen him was in a class for which I’d modelled at the
ateliers des arts.
I remembered the appreciative look in his eyes when I took off my robe. “I don’t do portraits.”
“Why?” He made an impulsive movement as though he was about to stand up, but my raised hand and look of horror forestalled him. He collapsed back on the sofa with an apologetic grin. “You are the most incredible woman I have ever seen. That was how the wager started—we were discussing the perfect shape of your face, the drama of your colouring, the glory of your eyes. The Divine Dita. That’s what they call you. No one can understand why you’ll let them paint your tits but not your face.” He seemed to feel I might be offended by the comment and added, “Don’t get me wrong. Your tits are glorious, too! But you could earn a king’s ransom from portraits, you know.”
“No.” I shook my head firmly.
“Privately?” His tone was low, and very persuasive. “Just you and I, alone. The artist and his muse. A portrait no one else will ever see? I will pay you well.” He named a figure far in excess of anything I had ever earned.
I studied him thoughtfully. He really was quite alarmingly attractive and not remotely self-conscious, apparently, about his own nudity. “If it was just between us, how would you win your wager?” I asked.
“I wouldn’t, of course. But I would have the satisfaction—private satisfaction—of knowing that I had succeeded where others had failed.”
His smile was heartbreaking, but I couldn’t help noticing that, in contrast, his eyes were sad. It was a curiously irresistible combination. The offer was enticing, but I couldn’t risk it, even for the sum he had mentioned. To avoid any further temptation, I changed the subject. “How did your clothes get so wet?”
“Some of my so-called friends decided to throw me into the fountain before we parted company last night.” He frowned in an effort to remember. “I mean, this morning.”
“These things will take forever to dry. I can go to your apartment, if you wish, and bring you back something to change into. You’ll have to give me a key, of course. I’m not as skilled in the art of house-breaking as you.”
“Ah,” he said, as though another memory had just occurred to him. “When those clothes are dry, I’d better get out and start looking for somewhere to live.” He glanced around my neat, little apartment, taking in the two boxlike bedrooms, tiny bathroom and this comfortable parlour with its views across the rooftops and curtained-off kitchen area at one end. “Unless—you wouldn’t happen to be looking for a roommate, would you, sweetheart? I’m house-trained and harmless.”
I eyed him thoughtfully while my mind raced through a series of arguments. Against the dangers of allowing a dissolute, undeniably charismatic—but probably penniless, and almost certainly lecherous—artist into my home and my life, I weighed the previous day’s stern warning from my landlord: “Pay the arrears by Monday, or take up residence on the street corner.” And, of course, it wouldn’t be a bad thing to have a man about the place. Another girl had been found dead just yards from my front door. My restless mind flitted back again to the arguments against the idea. The biggest of them all lurked in the shadows of my imagination. Thankfully, he had not yet appeared in the shadows of my reality. But I knew it was only a matter of time. I had made myself a promise that Sandor would never be allowed to hurt another person because of me. Could I keep that promise if I allowed myself to become close to this engaging rogue?
“The rent is due on Friday and I will need two weeks in advance,” I blurted out before I had time to apply either caution or sense to the situation. I could always throw him out if he proved to be a nuisance. He held out his hand with solemn courtesy. Averting my eyes as the cushion slipped slightly, I returned his warm grasp. His eyes twinkled, briefly dispelling the discordant air of sorrow that prevailed in their depths.
That was the day on which Eddie Jago and I became roommates. And best friends.
A dream, a wakeful memory, forces its way—unbidden and unwelcome—into his reluctant consciousness.
He wears a long, dark overcoat and a top hat of black silk. An onyx-handled cane swings at his side and his highly polished shoes gleam as he steps between the yellow circles of gaslight. He smells of expensive cologne and money. Despite his height and powerful frame, his stride is light and graceful.
It is a perfect night for it, cold, damp and misty. This is the murder hour, the time when midnight is a memory and dawn a hopeless promise. He is the only being who walks this night without fear. The streets are his. He seeks the shadows and finds the right kind of gloom. The light here is just right for pretending.
“Your time has come.” The words are like crystal hanging in the aching silence, so close that he turns his head to see who utters them. When he understands who speaks, tears of mingled joy and terror track his cheeks. His master draws him into the comforting embrace of possession and together they feast on the sounds of darkness. The yelp of a dog as a boot connects with its ribs. The shuffle of a patched shoe slipping on greasy cobbles. The fearful hiss of an indrawn breath.
The girl walks quickly, head down, footsteps fleet. She doesn’t fool him. Her presence in the filth-piled gutters of this stinking alley is the only signal he needs. Her cloak falls open. Before she can pull it tighter, he glimpses her low-cut dress. The soft, full curves of her breasts press against the bodice of her gown. Veins pulse blue tendrils of life beneath the porcelain whiteness of her skin.
“You know what you must do.” Phantom breath caresses his cheek. “Do it for me now.”
To her, he is a shadow. There but not there. Indistinguishable from the night he owns. Gradually, he materialises from the unblinking gloom. His face remains hidden. He speaks, and his voice is soft and cultured. She pauses and, in doing so, makes this minute her last.
* * *
When the letter, with its Austrian postmark and familiar copperplate script, came at last, it was almost a relief. The waiting was over. It was propped on the mantel in the tiny parlour of our attic apartment. Brooding. Menacing. Waiting to dispel my peace and destroy my dalliance in Paris. Thoughtfully, I turned the innocuous packet over in my hands. I looked forward to opening it with marginally less pleasure than I would approach a box of deadly scorpions. Magda’s words rang in my mind: “I will write only if I have news of Sandor.” That was what she had told me eighteen months ago, when, thieflike, I had stolen away from Vienna during a storm-laden night. Sure enough, when I opened the folded page, three stark words were sprawled across it.
Liebling, he knows.
I don’t recall how long I stood there in front of the fire, staring at Magda’s writing, willing the words to be different.
“Dita?” Eddie’s voice roused me from my trance. We had shared an apartment for six months, but I was still sometimes surprised to see him there. I had become so used to being alone. I turned to face him, crumpling the letter in my hand. I thought he must sense, from my expression, the waves of panic and fear that were resonating through me. But his own face was equally pale, his striking eyes indigo-dark and stormy. I went to him and, wordlessly, drew him into a close embrace. As I reached up to stroke the dark silk of his hair, I wasn’t sure whether the gesture was intended to comfort him or myself.
“I have to go home. Back to England,” he said with an effort. “My father has been ill for some time. I’ve been avoiding it, but I have responsibilities I can no longer ignore.” He pulled away from me slightly so that he could study my face. “I can’t face it alone, Dita. You are the only person I can trust. Will you come with me?” Even through my concern for him, I felt a stinging surge of relief. Here was my answer. This way there was no reason for anyone to ever know that Eddie’s departure from Paris had coincided so neatly with my own need to take urgent flight.