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Authors: Elizabeth Adler

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BOOK: The Charmers
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Oh God, how can I be so unkind? Is there anything more painful than a broken heart? Not when you are going through it, I remember that now.

“My dear,” I said in my kindly old aunt voice. (I mean she is so young and I am, though I hate to admit it, now “in my forties,” but this is the role I seem to have been cast in at the moment.) “My dear, you have to trust me.”

“Why?” She gave me a long, weepy, upward look from reddened eyes. “I mean, why do I have to trust you? I trusted him and look what happened.”

“Yes, well, of course, he is a man. It's different between us women.”

She stared at me. The sobbing stopped. At least I had silenced her.

We were sitting in the car, a newly rented Fiat, in place of the dead Maserati, and she was staring at the Villa Romantica like it was Dracula's castle and I was maybe the vampire himself.

“Why did you bring me here?”

“Oh, for God's sake.” I managed to keep the snarl from my voice, but not the impatience. “This is my house, usually called a villa here in the South of France. I inherited it and now it's my home. My new home,” I added, with a pang of longing for my small just-sold London flat where I had been happy enough, if lonely, for a few years.

“Who gave it to you?” she demanded, suspicion written all over her tear-mottled, though pretty face.

“Who the hell cares, it's where you'll spend the night, if you're lucky and behave yourself better. If not, I promise I'll pack you off back to that husband who stole all your money and dumped you.”

“I didn't have much to be dumped for.” She looked wistfully at me. “I'm ashamed to be dumped for only a couple of thousand, I mean he could have done better than that, couldn't he?”

Filled with sudden pity, I flung an arm around her shoulders and hugged her closer. “Listen, girl, men can behave like bastards sometimes, but that doesn't mean all of them are. Nor does it have anything in the least bit to do with you, or who you are. He was just a scoundrel, a shameless cheat and men like him usually get what they deserve in the end. I'm only sorry you won't be there to give him a good punch in the nose.”

“I won't?”

Sounding as firm as I could and as though I believed what I said, I answered, “Of course not. He'll try it again with some other woman and she'll punch him where it hurts and probably see that he ends up in jail.”

“Ohh,” she began to wail again, tears streaming.

“What now?” I was exasperated. What the fuck was I doing in this situation anyway?

“I'll be married to a jailbird,” she sobbed. “Me. A jailbird's wife.”

“No, you won't. You'll divorce him. Trust me, I'll see to that, in fact I'll get onto it right away. Shouldn't be surprised if we got it annulled, under the circumstances.”

To my surprise, she cheered up immediately and began to look around and take in her whereabouts.

“But how lovely this is.” She wiped off her sunglasses, which had become misted with tears, and stuck them back up on top of her head. Apparently this was where she usually wore them, unlike the rest of us who use them to protect our eyes from the sun. Youth, I decided from my forties' vantage point, was not too smart.

The cat made a sudden appearance, leaping into the car and onto my lap with a howl of delight. It's so nice, if sometimes noisy, to be loved by a Siamese. She gave me her usual head-butt and I kissed her ears and Verity leaned over to touch her.

“So soft,” she said admiringly. “So beautiful.”

And then the canary flew up onto the cat's head and perched there, tilting back its own tiny head and singing with pure joy. And the dog, not to be outdone in the greetings department, scrabbled its claws on the car door, no doubt scratching the paint, but who the hell cares when love is involved. These were mine, my loves, they shared my life, they gave me a life.

“How I envy you,” young Verity said. All tears were gone and she was shaking her long golden hair loose and smiling and petting the dog. Then she really looked at the villa and said, “This is Jerusha's place.”

 

14

Of course Chad Prescott did not own the villa. It was Aunt Jolly's and, as her heir, obviously now mine, though it was named for all the romantic qualities I do not possess. How otherwise have I managed to marry three men then have them leave me? Had I left them, it would be one thing; but for
three
to leave
me,
is quite another. The implication is, and as I know everybody believes, that there must be something wrong with me—either I'm tight with my money, or it's the sex. They say it's always one or the other.

In fact it was neither; the husbands simply bored me, and I suspect I bored them. The first was too young, too full of sexual confidence and unable to admit his inexperience—my fault really, I should have recognized he was not mature enough. The second was after my money and when he found out that—at that time—there was none, he departed. The third was the kind of guy who needed to be looked after: he wanted a caregiver not a wife.

“What the hell?” I said to friends. “All I wanted was someone to share a bottle of wine with, watch the sunset together, have dinner. I didn't bargain for getting up in the morning, looking at him in his tiny whities and hairy thighs, demanding coffee and a cooked breakfast. A girl has her standards and a cooked breakfast does not take early morning priority over good sex. At least it should not.”

I'm not surprised they dumped me, though. I tried others, found I was more comfortable alone, living in my London flat, writing the exotic fictional lives readers imagined were my own, and there were times I wished they were. Now here I am, the “esteemed author,” a suddenly independent woman, a rich bitch with a villa, thanks to Aunt Jolly, who I first met when I was around three or four years old.

The meeting took place in what was then Harrods' Tea Room, and I remember dropping a chocolate éclair down the front of my velvet-collared little princess coat that was still buttoned to the neck practically choking me, because my mother wanted me to look like a well-brought-up child to impress the rich aunt.

As I remember it, there were no other children in Harrods' Tea Room so I never had anyone to compare it with, but it seemed to me, young as I was, that there was something wrong with being so uncomfortably dressed just to eat a cream cake, and that's why I deliberately dropped it down that hated coat that I could remember to this day choking me.
And
it was pink. I was definitely not a pink child.

But now I own a pink villa. Somehow, it was right for the early twentieth-century stucco house, four-square except where a wing stuck out at the back, supposedly built for servants' quarters, now converted into posh guest rooms complete with cool white-tiled bathrooms with strong rain-head showers for those coming from the beach and needing to get the sand off.

I certainly did not want sand trekked into what was now my grand room. I'm calling it the “grand room” because it's several smaller rooms knocked into one and now covers the entire front of the villa, with floor-to-ceiling glass doors that slide into each other, opening it up to the pale terra-cotta-tiled terrace running the entire length of the house, wide enough for hammocks and cushioned couches and coffee tables. Plus there is an outdoor dining area that seats twenty with the locally made rush-seat chairs I love but which guests complain snag their skirts, leaving them with little pulled threads on their rear ends when they stand up to leave.

The rooms on the upper floor have their own individual balconies, just big enough for a breakfast table and chairs and a couple of loungers, striped green or coral. Deep blue awnings protect breakfasters from the sun, and a long narrow dark-blue tiled pool, bluer than my eyes, glimmers in the summer heat. Clusters of bougainvillea in fuchsia and scarlet, purple and pink, even one in a salmony-orange, soften the walls and the terrace, trailing along the pathway and down the wooden steps leading to the beach, where you have to step carefully over a clutter of pebbles before reaching the small crescent of sand and the perfect pale sea, which in summer is always just cool enough to refresh and exactly warm enough not to cause a bather to flinch.

The villa was built in the 1930s by a love-struck English gentleman for his mistress, the famed singer, Jerusha, whose flaming red hair was exactly the same color as my own. I know that because I've seen her pictures. And I've also heard that the singer's flamboyant performances sent sexual ripples through her audiences, both male and female, the men wanting her, the women wanting to be like her.

The singer's villa remains almost exactly as it was when she lived here. It's more subdued than her reputed stage persona, a cool, casual hideaway in summer, and a refuge in winter warmed by log fires in huge limestone fireplaces she purchased from torn-down chateaus that were no longer affordable. Pale paneling in a limed wood encloses the dining room with its enormous glass table supported down the center by a quartet of rampant lions, which means everybody can get their legs under quite comfortably. There are high-backed chairs in a faded brocade, built for ease over long leisurely dinners, always accompanied by local wines grown on the hills glimpsed from the balconies; wines that flowed like the conversation and the music.

The Villa Romantica still lives up to its original name, with spacious bedroom suites and oversized beds piled so high with pillows you need a little flight of Victorian wooden steps to climb into their white-duvet comfort. Then you can lie back and admire your own personal view of the sea.

The bathrooms have fireplaces too, where fires were always lit in winter, with the scent of lavender burning sweetly. I've equipped them with the kind of thin, rough, Egyptian cotton towels I so prefer to those soft fluffy ones that never seem to dry you properly. The soap is made right down the coast: Marseilles soap it's called and it has a green freshness to it that leaves you feeling extra clean. Of course there is always lotion, local stuff also made from olive oil I think, and powder from Paris, Chanel naturally, my favorite, plus a small selection of scents—perfumes as they are called today: Roger & Gallet for the men, Chanel or Dior for the women, as well as fresh little cotton slippers, the kind you just slide your feet into, and those cosy, huggable, white terry-cloth robes in an assortment of sizes because you never know exactly. A bottle of Perrier waits on the night table with a selection of current magazines,
The New Yorker
a particular favorite I've noticed, and a choice of books—biographies always disappear with the guests and have to be replaced. Odd, how curious people are about other people's lives.

Anyway, this is the villa to which I brought Verity, my new and unknown guest. Despite the fact she mentioned Jerusha and a murder, I doubted she really knew much about it. Or about Jerusha, its famous, or rather notorious, original owner, and the frightening and outrageous events that took place here, years ago.

Suddenly nostalgic, I opened the door and went into Aunt Jolly's room.

It had the best view of the sea and I remembered she always slept with her windows open, saying the sound of it lulled her to sleep. Rest in peace, Aunt Jolly, I thought. Sleeping the sleep of the angels now. I tried not to allow the memory of how she died, violently and all alone, to intrude on my good thoughts of her.

A painting hung over the night table beside the bed, half hidden by a large copper lamp with a parchment shade. I walked over and took a closer look. It was small, twelve-by-fifteen perhaps and so grayishly insignificant I might never have bothered to more than glance at it, but since it was the only form of decoration in my aunt's room, I assumed it had meant something special to her. It was a view of what I recognized as the River Thames on a windy day, choppy waves heading toward the bank, London skyline in the background. And the signature. J. M. W. Turner.

I looked closer. Could it be
the
J. M. W. Turner? Surely there could not be two artists of that era with that name. Was this a real treasure, hidden from the world in my dear aunt's bedroom all these years? Where could she have gotten it? Was it a gift, or had she seen it in a gallery and fallen in love? I looked at it again. It was still grayish and insignificant, definitely difficult to fall in love with. It had to have been a gift. And an expensive one at that. Somebody had cared.

It hung on a nail hammered into the wall like any commercial piece of store-bought rubbish. Perhaps it was only a copy after all. Yet even to my untrained eye there was something about it, the freedom of the brushstrokes, the luminous quality of the threatening sky, a spirit-of-place captured forever in paint.

I sank onto the bed, onto the white duvet, taking it in. Which is no doubt what the artist intended you to do—draw you into this scene, take you there with him. I wondered how many nights, alone in this room, alone in her bed, had Aunt Jolly gazed at it, unable to sleep, seeing it by lamplight, even candlelight, thinking about the past and her unknown future.

The frame, though, was out of keeping, gold and ornately carved, too elaborate for such a personal landscape. I turned it over to see who the framer was. Thick card covered the back, peeling at the edges. I pried it off and to my surprise, found a pale blue sealed envelope.

For my descendants
was written in deep blue ink in a bold hand that was definitely not Aunt Jolly's.

I stared, fascinated by it. Well, I thought, I don't know who you are, but I'm thinking perhaps I might be a descendant. After all, we have Aunt Jolly in common, though it appears she never opened your letter. Maybe she didn't need to. Maybe she already knew what it said.

I fell back against the pillows, eyes closed, the envelope clutched to my chest, undecided. Did I have the right to read a letter not meant specifically for me?

A sudden breeze rustled the curtains, slid softly across my cheek, over my closed lids. A faint scent filtered into the room, sweet as summer grasses and damask roses.

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