Read The Charmers Online

Authors: Elizabeth Adler

The Charmers

 

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Table of Contents

About the Author

Copyright Page

 

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Acknowledgments

Of course, and as always, my thanks to Jennifer Enderlin, the best editor any writer could wish for. I consider myself lucky to have her insight. She always knows exactly how the timing should be to get maximum suspense and impact, as well as what they should be eating and drinking in the south of France!

My thanks also to all the team at St. Martin's Minotaur, who, with their hard and careful work, make the production of a book seem so easy. And of course to my wonderful agent, Anne Sibbald of Janklow, Nesbitt & Associates, without whom I would not be publishing my thirtieth novel, with my other novels in more than thirty published languages. Quite simply, she is the best, and when we're not talking plot lines, we are talking “kitties,” hers and mine, who keep us amused, not to say “on our toes” chasing after them when they get a little bored and start swiping ornaments off shelves.

Last but not least, my husband of so many years we've stopped counting, Richard Adler … “without whom” … is all I need to say. He checks my every word, queries plot directions, retypes it all, and pours the champagne when it's finished. What more could I want?

A few months ago, my darling black cat, Sunny, got sick with cancer. Losing him was a terrible sadness; he was fifteen years old and so much a part of our lives. We miss his golden-eyed innocence, his pleasure in life. Our Siamese, Sweet Pea, is still with us, thank heaven, and becoming more vocal with age.

So, here I am enjoying the desert sunshine, and already writing the next … and then the next and the next. Please, enjoy them.

 

Prologue

 

The Painting

April 14, 1912

Walter Matthews

Walter “Iron Man” Matthews was propping up the first-class bar on the new luxury liner, the RMS
Titanic,
as it plowed steadily through the Atlantic. There were no waves, no wind. The ocean was flat as a board. A faint haze hung over it, under a sky so glittering with stars it outshone the great ship's own lights.

He was downing a double Macallan whiskey, his preferred pre-dinner tipple wherever he was in the world, be it on a boat or in a London drawing-room, in a Manhattan penthouse or a canoe floating down the Amazon, because of course in places like the jungle one must always take one's own supplies. It was the only civilized way, even though in the jungle one's boots might be being attacked by fire ants, and in the drawing-room one's soul attacked by someone's unlovely daughter “tinkling the ivories” as they called it, without a speck of emotion.

He placed the painting on the bar. It was a river scene by the artist J. M. W. Turner. He had fallen in love with its misty colors.

It was professionally wrapped in waterproof covering. “Just in case, sir,” the art dealer had said with a faint smile. “One can never trust the ocean.”

Quite right, Walt thought now as he became aware of a grinding noise and a sideways lurch that sent his glass sliding half the length of the mahogany bar and almost into the lap of another fellow. He waved an apologetic hand even as he slid from his seat because there was no more traction to hold him in place. Gravity had shifted and with it the enormous, new, unsinkable ship.

He was one of the first on deck. It was bitterly cold. A white cliff loomed beside them. They had struck an iceberg, formed by the cold waves of the Labrador current mixing with the warm waters of the Gulf Stream.

Ever the gentleman, he helped the ladies into the constantly moving lifeboats that lifted and dropped with the movement of the ship. He never let go of his painting though, kept it tucked inside his dinner jacket. He had been about to go down for dinner and of course had dressed appropriately for his position in first-class. He kind of regretted the dinner; it would have been good, solid fare, a bit Frenchified perhaps as they often were on the big ships, but he enjoyed that. And he regretted the Macallan, which had spilt all over the place, including on his hand-tailored Soames and Whitby jacket, even staining his pristine white shirt cuffs that were linked with circles of gold and sapphire, matching the studs in his starched white shirt front.

The situation was disastrous, he knew it; recognized what fate had in store for all of them; heard the screams of the terrified women on the lower decks, the wails of children and infants, the cursing of the seamen attempting to get the insufficient lifeboats lowered from the constantly shifting ship.

Now, the ship slipped even lower, tilted, stern-up. The lifeboats already in the water pulled away, afraid to be caught in the whirling downward current as the liner quickly began to sink.

“Mr. Matthews, sir, come this way.” An officer grabbed his arm, tugged him toward the ladder over the side, leading into a small dinghy. But Walt stepped back when a young woman ran toward them, screams dying in her throat, fear written across her face.

Here,” he said, grabbing her arm, “now jump.” And he gave her an almighty shove that sent her dropping feet first into the orange dinghy.

“Jump yourself, sir,” the officer beckoned him from the dinghy.

But Walt could see it was already overloaded and, holding the painting over his head with one hand, he jumped into the icy depths. The winter temperature was minus two degrees. He might last, at most, fifteen minutes. He grabbed onto the dinghy's rope with his free hand, splashing his already-numb feet in his good crawl stroke, wondering if this was, in fact, the end. How ironic, he told himself. And how much he would have enjoyed that dinner.

He knew he could last no more than ten minutes. But then, quite suddenly, from one moment to the next, the water grew substantially warmer, certainly now above freezing.

The warm Gulf Stream current was what saved him. He was picked up several hours later, along with the few other survivors and taken aboard a passing cruiser, the
Carpathia,
where he was revived with brandy and hot blankets, after which he took to his bed—a small lower bunk in a lower cabin—and, with the painting stashed under his pillow, slept the sleep of the saved. He was one of the few.

The painting would some years later end up in the rose-silken boudoir of his mistress and love of his live, the wonderful, beautiful, well,
almost
beautiful if you looked at her the right way—the glorious Jerusha.

 

Part I

The Present

 

1

Antibes, South of France

The Boss, as he was called by everyone, even those that did not work for him and merely knew his reputation, strode purposefully past the seafront terrace bars until he came to the one he favored, where he pulled a chair from a table in the third row back, closest to the building. He always liked to face the street, the crowds, the other customers, keep his back against the wall, so to speak. Backs were vulnerable, his particularly so.

Despite the heat he was comfortable in white linen pants and a blue-and-white-print shirt, sleeves rolled up over his muscular forearms. His watch was neither gold nor flashy, though it was certainly expensive.

The chairs were small for a man his size, big, built like a wrestler. Most chairs were, except of course for the ones specifically crafted for his many homes. He was a man who liked his comforts, and coming from his background, who could blame him? Though you could blame him for the way he'd gone about getting them.

The waiter recognized him. Smiling, obsequious, linen napkin draped over an arm, and tray in hand, he inquired what his pleasure might be.

Lemonade was the answer. The Boss did not drink liquor, not even wine in this wine-growing country. The estates around St. Tropez in particular produced a benign, gently flavored rosé that slid down comfortably with a good lunch of lobster salad, or with the crisp and very fresh vegetables served raw with a house-made mayonnaise dip. They crunched between the teeth and had the added benefit of making the eater feel virtuous at not having had the hearty sandwich on the delicious locally baked bread many others were tucking into.

The lemonade came immediately, along with a bowl of ice and a spoon so he might help himself, decide how cold he wanted it, how diluted. He took a sip, and nodded to the waiter, who asked if there would be anything else. The waiter was told that there was not, but that he was expecting someone. He should be shown immediately to the table.

The Boss's original Russian name was Boris Boronovsky, which he had changed some time ago to a more satisfactorily acceptable European Bruce Bergen, though he looked nothing like a “Bruce.” He had a massive build, exactly, he had been told, like that of a Cossack from the Steppes: mighty on a horse, saber in hand, ready to take on the enemy. Yet his face was lean, with craggy cheekbones and deep-set eyes, lined from a lifetime of scouting for danger, which was all around. In his world it was anyway. And now at the international property level where land was fought over for the millions it would bring, that danger was ever-present. He knew always to look over his shoulder.

The Boss certainly took on the enemy, though not in an overtly aggressive fashion. He was more discreet, more subtle, more specific in his methods. He had always known, even as a child growing up—or more like existing—in the cold cabin outside the town of Minsk in Belarus, that he was destined for better things. No forest cabin for him, no logging trees, risking life and limb with a power saw; no dragging great lumps of wood still oozing sap onto a tractor so old it no longer functioned and was pulled instead by two donkeys with long faces like biblical animals in Renaissance frescoes. There was just something about those donkeys that made Boris think that, like in the paintings, they should have golden halos over their heads. Sometimes there was an unexpected tenderness in him, odd in such a brutal man.

The donkeys worked hard, were obedient to his commands, alert when he gave them food, drank from the stone trough when he permitted them to stop, thin sides shivering, ribs sticking out. Until one day they were not pulling hard anymore, their heads drooped with weariness, too weak to go on. He shot them where they stood, butchered them, sold the meat door-to-door in the town as fresh venison. Nobody knew the difference, or if they did they never said because Boris was intimidating, with his height, his massive build, his intense dark stare.

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