Read The Charmers Online

Authors: Elizabeth Adler

The Charmers (5 page)

I wanted a few more years if only to get to the bottom of what really happened to Aunt Jolly and catch the perpetrator, because I was sure as hell he was now also after me. But why? The same old same, of course: money or sex. I didn't think the sex was appropriate for Aunt Jolly so it had to be the money. The inheritance, which perhaps someone felt more entitled to than they thought I was. Well now, I wondered who that could be. Whoever it was would stoop to murder. Did I even know anybody like that? Of course I did not. This perpetrator had to be a stranger. The thought was even more terrifying than if it really was somebody I knew. Didn't they say better the devil you know than the devil you don't?

Suddenly a couple of soldiers in khaki jumpsuits and rugged boots were dangling over us from a helicopter. One took Verity. I reached up to the other. God, I was so relieved that amid my tears I even kissed him; well, kissed his stubbly cheek anyway, saw him grin from the corner of my eye, heard myself laughing and sobbing at the same time as, terrified in his arms, I swung back up the canyon and miraculously was shoved into the hovering helicopter, rotors whirling, and looking to me like a bird of good omen. And oh boy, did I need one.

Minutes later I was on the ground again, laid out on a rough blanket that scratched my bare legs, and a man who said he was a doctor was leaning over me, checking my racing pulse, my thundering heart, my legs, arms, head. I hurt everywhere and just wished he would go away, stop bothering me. Though I did have sufficient wits left to notice how good-looking he was. Trust me to find a handsome doc when I most needed one.

He said, “You're going to be alright, you'll make it.”

“Oh, go away,” I said.

“Right,” he said. And he signaled to the ambulance driver and left.

Aunt Jolly, wherever you are now, I know what happened was because of you. I will use all of this, I will find out how, why, where, when; I will avenge you, my poor dear Aunt Jolly, so happy in your lovely Mediterranean aerie, needing no one but your dog and your cat and the tiny canary bird that seemed to live on forever. Its name is Sing, I remembered it as I flew like that canary out of the canyon to safety. It sang all your life. I hoped it was still singing, though you are gone.

 

6

A detective came to the hospital to question us, though Verity and I were in shock, still disbelieving that someone had run us off that road and halfway down a canyon.

“It's a miracle Dr. Prescott found you and that you are alive,” the detective said in English.

He introduced himself as Colonel Rufus Barrada. He was fortyish, attractive, stocky, thickset, with a stubbled chin, deep eyes you could not read, and a thatch of dark untidy hair after he took his cap off. Those eyes bored into me from beneath brows as thick and untidy as his hair and I knew I was looking at a man who was not prepared to believe what I had to say, and that he thought the accident was my fault. I recalled the motorbike rider, the green car, and also—I could not help myself, I thought with a sinking heart, about the insurance on the Maserati. I had to explain to the officer what had happened, make it official, tell him I didn't know a Dr. Prescott.

“I'm thankful to be alive,” I said. “It was all the motorcycle rider's fault.”

“There was no bike rider at the scene of the accident.” The Colonel crossed his arms over his broad chest, stood looking down at me.

A charmer, he was not.

“Of course not, he sped off, faster than a speeding bullet,” I added, sticking to my Superman scenario.

“There was a green car, which you hit and which went off the road. The driver was killed.”

My breath caught in my throat.
Oh God, oh God, the poor bastard got it, that bike rider got him
.… “Jesus,” I said in a small, shaky voice. “I'm so sorry, I didn't know. But I did not hit him, I just saw the bike rider go at him and then it was gone … and so was I. There was a truck in the other lane. The driver must have seen what happened.”

“There have been no reports from any truck driver. No one else saw this accident, Madame Matthews. It was just you there, and the green car with its driver. And one of you died.”

I began to cry again. Somehow I could not stop. He harrumphed, passed me the box of Kleenex from the side table, poured a glass of water. My hand shook as I took it from his. Dark hair grew softly on the back of his hand, almost to the knuckles. I glanced up at him, directly into his eyes. His face was so close to mine it was almost as if we were about to kiss.

“We will talk again later,” he said, rising and striding quickly to the door. He opened it, turned to look back at me. “I hope you will soon feel better, Madame Matthews.”

“Oh, please, it's Mirabella.”

He shook his head and sighed. “Madame Matthews,” he said. “This is a professional matter we are talking about. Allow me to keep it that way.”

Of course he was right, and of course I was in serious trouble.

 

7

The hospital found Verity and me to be none the worse for wear, despite the fact that the crash totaled the vehicle and necessitated our helicopter rescue, exciting the imagination of the media whose intrusive cameras and mikes followed us all the way home. Actually I thought Verity quite enjoyed it, lifting her chin and smiling shyly despite her bruises and two black eyes that gave her the look of a young panda, plus the over-large gray sweats that overwhelmed her. Her shoes had disappeared in the fall, as had my own, so we were barefoot as we hobbled into the ambulance to be ferried to the anonymous safety of the Villa Romantica.

I directed the driver along the coast road, then up into the hills along the winding lane, which ended at my home.

There was always something about the Villa Romantica, an air of romance. It was built in the 1930s by the beauty, singer, actress, stage personality, and mistress to a famous man, Jerusha, who needed only one name to be known throughout the globe. Many years later, even after her death, the memories and passed-down stories of those who had known her seemed to keep her alive.

It wasn't surprising then, that to me she would always seem to be there, at the villa, a half-caught glimpse but when I turned to look no one was there; a flash of red hair floating in the breeze beyond the trees, the rustle of a silk skirt … a mirage, I told myself, a trick of the light. Or could it be Jerusha's spirit still roamed free, restless, unable to leave the beloved home she had built and then lost? Was Jerusha unable to leave “love” behind? Never to move on? I was soon to find out.

There were no other buildings beyond the Romantica, only huge bushes of pink-blooming oleander, and the hill dotted with olive trees, and higher still almond trees which, when in blossom, scented the entire area so you felt you were breathing nature itself. Now, though, in the summer months, old-fashioned roses drooped their heavy heads and fields of lavender drifted to the horizon, while lemons and oranges hung from branches that looked too small to bear their weight. And always in sight through branches and tree trunks and the bushes, was the sea. Blue-green today.

I loved the sea so much because, unlike the garden, it gave a constantly changing image, almost hour by hour, sometimes white-tipped with surf, sometimes dark and green, often gray, but more often blue.

“Here we are.” I indicated the sharp left, though in fact there was nowhere else to go because as I said, this is where the road ended. Indeed there we were. At the Villa Romantica. My home, for better, for worse, just like in marriage. And like a new bride, I was in love.

I shall never forget Aunt Jolly. I still couldn't believe that she'd left me her beloved home. Somehow she had known I would love it too, that we were the right fit. All I had to do now was to find out why she had died so violently.

But first, what to do with the runaway waif who had become my responsibility? Sure as hell nobody else was about to pick her up from the lowly place she had fallen and take care of her. And if ever a woman looked in need of putting back together it was this one.

“Come on, hon,” I said as the ambulance driver opened the door and I edged across the seat. “This is where we live.”

“Jerusha's house,” she said, astonishing me. She was still perched on the edge of the seat in the ambulance, seemingly stunned as she stared at the house. “There was a murder here.”

“Perhaps,” I said briskly. “Come on, girl, let's get on with it.” And I took her hand and gave it a tug.

She swung her legs out the door, long pretty legs, I noticed, though a bit beat-up from the accident. She managed with what seemed a great effort to stand up, wobbling, so I worried whether she had been right to leave the hospital.

“She's okay,” the driver said. I knew he was an expert because they'd seen everything. “Just a bit shook up. Give her a cup of coffee and she'll be fine.”

“A martini is more like it,” I said, putting my arm around her waist and walking her to the front door thinking longingly of a tall, cold drink and a comfy sofa.

When my houseman, Alfred, opened the door, the shocked expression on his middle-aged, usually bland face with its high, bald forehead and shaggy gray brows that met in the middle in a concerned frown, made me understand just what a sight the pair of us were.

“Madame,” he exclaimed, rushing down the three wide steps to help me while the nice driver assisted Verity.

“Alfred, this is my friend Verity. We'll put her in the peony room, I think.” Of course I meant the room with the original peony-print wallpaper, faded with age to a nice pale pink.

“Quite right, Madame, it's cheerful,” he said, inspecting Verity closely. “And she looks as though she needs cheering up a bit.”

English understatement as always from Alfred. Good servants know their profession and they should never be underrated. It's a job in which they rightly take pride, as does a good waiter.

But Verity stood still, seemingly rooted to the top step, peering through the wide double doors fashioned from a rare oak felled in a thunderstorm when the villa was built, and with a large heart-shaped brass door-knocker, indicating, it was said, Jerusha's welcome to her guests. I wished the guests had all felt the same way about their beautiful and generous hostess, Jerusha. Obviously some had not. It puzzled me as to exactly why this was, and I was determined to find out the truth. But truth is elusive when it comes to the past; everyone has their own story and with the passing of time even those become distorted.

We walked into the hall and Verity said, surprising me again, “Jerusha was a friend of my grandmother. I remember seeing her photo on the table next to the sofa in Gran's boudoir. I always picked it up to look at it because she was so lovely, in a long flowing dress that swept to one side in a train. Glamorous, I suppose she was, though to a child she was simply beautiful. How I wished I could be like her, I remember saying that to Gran and her telling me with a sad look on her face that I should not wish any such thing. She wouldn't tell me why but she removed the photo, put it away somewhere I suppose because I never saw it again. And of course I never asked why.”

“Well, now you know,” I said. “Jerusha was a killer. Rotten to the core. Seduced men, they said, simply because she could.” Verity stared at me, bug-eyed, and I took pity on her. “Of course, those were only rumors, there are always tales about a woman as lovely and famous as that. You've only to look at some of today's stars, hounded by the press, false stories made up about their goings-on.”

“But that's so unfair.”

I shook my head, smiling at Verity's naivety. “Hon,” I said, “that's life. Anyhow,” I added, remembering our own recent dice with death, “I've always wanted to find out the truth, and now you are here to help me. Your grandmother knew Jerusha; she must have told you stories about her.”

Verity looked doubtful. “None that I remember, just her name, and that maybe she killed someone, and about the villa. There was a picture of it, you see. Gran took it herself when she stayed here. You know the kind where all the houseguests are assembled in front of the house, like in a school photo. And now I remember, the king stayed here with Jerusha, when he was still king, before he abdicated and became one of us.”

“Well, not exactly,” I said. “Even though Edward VIII was downgraded to a duke he was not ‘one of us.' But he was said to have an eye for a pretty woman. Plus he was known to be an entertaining guest so I'm sure Jerusha would have loved him.”

We both turned our heads, hearing the roar of a car's engine and the spurt of gravel as it pulled to an abrupt stop. A reckless driver, I thought. We heard footsteps approaching on the path, then a man appeared at the doorway, silhouetted against the sun so we could not make out who exactly he was, though I was certain it was no one I knew.

I met him on the stoop, annoyed at his impertinence. “Who are you? And what do you mean by walking in here like you own the place?” My anger showed in my tone of voice.

His coldness showed in his, sending a chill though my bones.

“I might,” Chad Prescott said.

He stepped forward so I could see his face: lean, handsome, lightly tanned, an outdoorsman's face—sporty, horses, fishing; things like that. I felt myself melt.

It was the doctor. Ohh, I thought. Another charmer.

 

8

I dragged my eyes away, looking down at the parquet floor but not seeing it. In the short time available I had managed to take in the floppy blond hair, the network of lines around his eyes, blue eyes in fact, much like my own, as well as the stubble on that firm chin, and a nice-looking underlip, full and sweet enough for a bite. But what was I thinking? This man, this doctor, had just claimed he owned my villa. I should want to smack him across his too-good-looking face. But I'm not the smacking kind, I'm a giver not a taker, a softie at heart, and I do have a heart though at the moment it seems to have stopped. Taken a break. I hope it begins to beat again soon, I'd quite like to breathe.

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