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Authors: Elizabeth Adler

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BOOK: The Charmers
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I heard Verity telling him there had been a man in my room, that she had heard me scream, and that he'd escaped through the french doors.

“We have him,” the Colonel said, indicating the now-handcuffed Chad Prescott, who we could see outside on the steps, about to be bundled into the cop car, blue lights blazing like in a true crime scene. I almost smiled through my tears; I thought that would show the bastard who'd claimed he owned this villa. Let him try to take it away from me now, when he was inside a jail cell. Then I remembered, he had come to my aid.

“He's my neighbor,” I called loudly so the officers outside would hear. “He came to help me. He is not the intruder, that man had a gun, he was wearing black, he got away through the doors.…”

“No one was seen outside, Madame…?” The Colonel gave me a questioning glance.

I could tell that, like I had done with Chad Prescott, he was pretending he could not remember my name. Maybe it was true and he couldn't. After all, I was not that memorable, except for my red hair.

“It's Mirabella Matthews,” I said and gave him a sharp look that let him know I knew he knew. He gave me what I assumed was a smile back, a mere lifting of the lips. I took another deeper look at him. Medium height, stocky, rumpled dark hair, an impression of strength, maybe a little dangerous. Of course that could be because of the stubble; a whiskery chin always lends itself to a look of masculinity, a not-quite-had-time-to-shower-and-shave, just-left-my-bed look. I quite liked it, actually. My imagination could take off on a look like that.

“Madame Matthews.” He was not in a joking, lighthearted, flirty mood. He was deadly serious, and with reason. “This is the second time you have been in mortal danger.” He gave me another long look from his flinty, dark eyes—gray, I think, unusual anyway. “You seem to attract trouble.”

He was being mean and I knew it; still he was attractive in an offbeat way. Another of the “bad boys” was how Verity would have described him. You just knew
he
would be trouble. And right now he intended to give
me
that trouble, though I had done nothing wrong, only summoned his professional aid.

“I can't help it if someone pushed me off the road and someone else came into my room with a gun,” I managed to say, albeit tearfully.

“You don't seem to understand,” he said almost pityingly. “Someone seems determined to kill you. And what I want is for you to tell me why.”

I was suddenly back to the frightened woman I had been before he rescued me. Well, not exactly
rescued,
but saved me anyway. That man in my room would not, I was sure, have simply gone away. Had the cops not announced their arrival, sirens and lights blazing, I might have been a dead woman, bullet through the chest from that silver gun, the Siamese and the sausage dog sitting helplessly at my head, the canary singing a mournful anthem to my passing.

“I'm scared,” I admitted. “I don't know any reason why someone should want to kill me. I've never done anyone any harm. I don't even know many people here. I inherited the Villa Romantica from my aunt, I don't even know much about it.…”

“Do you know about Jerusha?”

I was silenced by his surprising question.

“Jerusha?”
he repeated. “The woman who first owned the villa. The woman for whom it was built.”

“I … well, I've heard of her, of course. I knew this was her place.”

“Her lover built it for her. It was the most expensive villa on the coast at that time. The grounds alone were several hectares of land. There was a lavish lifestyle, famous guests, many servants.”

“I had heard,” I said, though in truth I did not really know the whole story, it had all happened so long ago. “Surely nobody really cares about all that anymore.”

He was silent for a while, then he said, “Perhaps,” as he got to his feet. “I shall leave two men on duty tonight. You will be safe. Tomorrow, I suggest you get yourself some able-bodied help. For security purposes.”


Bodyguards,
you mean?” I couldn't believe it. I needed security? “But why?”

“That is a question only you can answer, Madame. But I might suggest you look into your past, into everybody's past, to find out. Meanwhile, get that security.”

And the Colonel turned and left me, mouth agape, wondering what it was all about.

 

Part II

Jerusha 1930s

 

17

Mirabella

Much later, as dawn was lifting the sky, I sat on my bed, alone again, with the envelope containing a letter written by Jerusha. I was holding a piece of history in my hand, meant only to be read by her descendants, or those that remembered her, or at least remembered more than the scandal, the disaster she was involved in, the events that had brought her and her entire world down, and after which she simply disappeared. No one knew and, as time passed, no one even cared where she had gone.

But before that, and perhaps what led up to it, was her early story written here in her own hand, of a girl born to beauty and poverty, a combination that spelled disaster. Life did not offer much to a girl in those circumstances, a girl that looked like that, other than to go to the stage. It was 1926. “Theatre” was what she was destined for, at least that's what her mother told her when she took her by the hand, aged thirteen, on the train to Paris to “seek her fortune.” And the fame that assuredly would come with it.

The letter was written in the distinctive violet ink Jerusha preferred, and began with the words,
This is my story.

Jerusha

You will have read other tales, different versions, of what I am about to say, but as the woman to whom all this happened, only I know the truth. I shall tell it to you now, in the hope it will be remembered, that I will not be judged forever for what happened. I have lived my life extravagantly, I admit it, but I also lived it honorably, or at least within the standards I considered honorable, showing compassion to those who needed a shoulder to cry on, giving material help to those who came to me in need, caring with all my heart for those young ones, the children I took into my life, who shared my life, who were my life.

I was born in a village near the town of Sarlat in the Dordogne region, a land spiked with young vines that over the years would become producers of the good wines of Bordeaux, but which were then still a work in progress. No vintner, no farmer, no field worker was making money. Poverty claimed our lives, kept us hand-to-mouth for decades.

I attended school, as was usual, until I was twelve years old. I learned to read and write but not much else. Too tall for my age, too much hair always unkempt, too long and too red, scraped back with a bit of string. There was no money even for ribbons from the tinkers that sold door-to-door. They did not bother so much as knocking on our door. It was a one-bedroom cottage, built a century or so before, as a stable. There were no foundations and it listed to one side, its black-and-white timbers were cracked, the door lintel sloped, the door itself hung off rusted hinges, and a bead curtain always rattling in the wind. Nothing kept out the bitter chill of winter, the rains of spring, the heat of summer. I knew nothing different. I never complained, though I would have liked a ribbon. I thought it would have made me like the other girls, the ones that ignored me, gathering together in a giggling clump, whispering behind their hands as I stood silently across the schoolyard. It was only a small stretch of beaten-down earth, unpaved and weedy and where the few tufts of grass hid bugs so small you never saw them but that bit your ankles, leaving ferocious red welts that lasted for weeks.

I wore my faded blue smock, my wrinkled once-white stockings, and clumsy black shoes with broken heels. They had belonged first to a neighbor girl, then to her sister, and had finally been passed pityingly on to me, who stuffed them with rags and bits of paper to keep out the wet and keep them on my narrow feet.

Later, when I was a success and told this story about myself, I claimed I did not care. All I knew was that I loved my mother, and she loved me. My mother told me I was destined for better things than life in this village where those other girls, the ones that had mocked me, would themselves end as beaten-down housewives, with too many children, and probably with a drunk for a husband struggling to provide a roof over their heads, because work was scarce and young love long since lost.

You, the stranger reading this now, will know, or at least you can find out, who I became. Who Jerusha used to be, that is, because now I am no one. I barely remember myself the extravagant, joyous, carefree life I led, that began with my introduction, still clutching my mother's hand, a too-young thirteen, innocent in the ways of the world and with no idea that a body could be used for sexual purposes, or that men would want my body, or that later I should find fulfillment, pleasure, even find “myself” in giving that pleasure to my lovers. Never a husband, though. Unlike my school friends who married for a house, I paid to keep my own roof over my head, kept my closets filled with couture dresses, evening gowns that sparkled the way I had imagined them in my dark little house, while now I had crystal chandeliers to light every corner. I had new friends to share this with me, friends that enjoyed my success, who cared about me for who I was, the same girl I had always been, the naive, too-extravagant “beauty” who all her life, when she looked in the mirror never saw that beauty, only the poor child with the broken shoes and her uncombed, too-red hair tied back with a piece of string.

That is, until the day Maman brushed out the tangles, washed and ironed my blue smock, hitched up the too-long stockings bleached back to whiteness in an ammonia-smelling cauldron, and who purchased new shoes with the little money she'd hidden from the man who was my father. He had never married her and came only at night, usually Friday when he had been paid and gotten drunk and wanted her, and later would not remember where his money had gone. Maman did though. It was in the black leather satchel with my borrowed schoolbooks.

Choosing a day when my father was gone to work in a faraway area, Maman cleaned me up, tied back my hair with a black ribbon she'd bought specially from the tinker, smoothed me up and down, and tied the newly polished shoes that shone like coal on top. She walked with me to the train station and bought two one-way tickets to Paris, where she told me I was going to be a star on the stage.

I believed her, of course. Who else could have taken me out of that village, dressed me up, fixed my hair, my shoes, so I could get to go on the stage? Me, who had never so much as seen a real stage, only the traveling circus in its small drafty tent with the dancers in their tatty finery, and the clowns that ran through the aisles tripping over their enormous shoes and making the children laugh. Was I, I wondered, clutching Maman's hand, about to become one of those dancing girls? Would I get to wear a sparkly tunic like theirs? Would I wear ostrich plumes in my hair that nodded with every step I took? Could I even dance?

It turned out it didn't matter if I could dance or sing. All I had to do was stand there, in the glare of the stage lights, in tights and silver shoes with high heels and a sequined tunic, my immature breasts covered with a fold of tulle, and smile at the unseen audience, who loved me.

 

18

Mirabella

I put down Jerusha's letter, more of a diary I thought, suddenly ashamed of intruding on another woman's personal life, on her thoughts and emotions. Diaries were not meant for other eyes: they were the writer's inner thoughts, wishes, memories, expressions of their fears and pleasures. I had no right to know Jerusha's.

I stuffed the thin pages back in the blue envelope. It was too small and I was afraid of crumpling them. Jerusha had written so carefully, she had put them in this envelope herself, never knowing who might read them. Yet, surely she had realized that one day, maybe long after she was gone, somebody would. Why else would she have told her story, especially after all the notoriety, when she had been accused of murdering her lover? Yet I could not bring myself to intrude on her thoughts now.

Restless, I went outside into the garden, pacing the path that led to the pebbly little beach. To my right was the dual driveway that serviced both villas, mine and my neighbor's, the oh so uncharming Dr. Chad Prescott, whose pink shorts I recalled too vividly for a woman who supposedly hated him. Well, disliked him, anyway, though he was undoubtedly good-looking and he had played a part in saving my life. At least in helping to fix me up after the accident, plus rushing to my aid and saving me from the villain with the gun, who later, even the Colonel had not been able to find, let alone identify. Had I even so much as thanked Chad for that? I could not remember, and taking the path that led to his villa, I decided to do so now.

Despite the early hour, I found him outside his triple-size garage hosing down a British racing green Jaguar convertible—which means it seats two in front and with a squeeze, two in the tiny space in back, a myth I've never gone for. However, the thought was irrelevant since I did not believe this man would ever put any passengers in the back, maybe not even in front. It was obvious from his intent expression and the way he stroked his hand lovingly over the surface that this car was his toy and he was not a boy that shared.

“How about taking me for a ride?” I said, putting him on the spot and startling him at the same time. He had not heard me approach, he was so intent on what he was doing. I liked that: a man who can concentrate that hard would be good at whatever he did. I'd heard he was a brilliant surgeon but I'd bet he would have been a great car mechanic in another life.

I watched as with an effort he brought himself back to the moment from wherever he had been lost. He took me in, feet planted firmly on his side of the drive, cute denim shorts a bit shorter than they should have been, long legs brown from the beach and early morning swims and late-afternoon cocktails on terraces, red hair floating out in an uncontainable cloud that perhaps I should have tied back with a bit of string, like Jerusha. And a white tee that, against my better judgement, I had bought secondhand—what they now call “vintage” in the local market—the one with the Rolling Stones' tongue and lip logo.

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