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Authors: Elizabeth Adler

The Charmers (9 page)

BOOK: The Charmers
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I sat up, still clutching the letter. The scent was gone and the breeze had disappeared as suddenly as it had come.

I looked at the envelope. I knew I could not open it here, in this room. I must take it with me, go somewhere that did not hold memories and secrets, or else leave it for some other time when I felt freer—safer.

Yet curiosity held me captive. I told myself that later I would find out who had written it, who had sealed this envelope, who had decided to spill her secrets. It had to be a woman; this was not the act of a man. Men would have spoken about what they felt, shared their affairs, their indifference, or their love.

I smoothed down the duvet, plumped up the pillows, took the painting and the blue envelope, and walked from the room, closing the door firmly behind me, shutting out, I believed, the spirit-of-place, or the person that inhabited it still.

 

15

The second attempt on my life, after the car crash, came that night.

My bedroom was, of course, once Jerusha's. I doubted it looked much different than when she'd occupied it: the same wide bed, certainly big enough for two, with the lavishly rose brocade–padded headboard that still bore a faint dent where her famous red hair had rested against it. No doubt she had bound it up for the night in a chignon, and no doubt with glamorous tendrils curling softly over her forehead and cheeks because, even defeated, Jerusha would have retained the remnants of her spirit and her beauty.

I stuck a tack into the plaster wall and hung the painting next to the bed, which I'd piled with fine, white-cotton pillows, plus a small square one made from satin that I always used under my face to prevent wrinkles. I don't know yet whether this works but I'd been assured from whomever I bought it that it would. I live in hope.

The night was warm, muggy in fact, hinting of a storm, the faint rumbles of which had echoed all evening long, though the sky remained a clear deep blue. Probably just a storm over the sea somewhere, I'd thought, paying it no heed, until later when I was awakened, I thought, by the clatter of hard rain against the open french doors and the sudden surge of cool air on my body, clad only in my usual short blue satin nightshirt.

I always wear these nightshirts, alone or with someone, in any country hot or cold. Once I make up my mind about something, that is it: a nightshirt, a house, a man. As well as a cat, a dog, and a songbird. All of whom now share this room with me and one of whom, the dog, was growling softly, up and alert, claws digging into my calf through the Italian six-hundred-thread-count sheet. Trust me, the Villa Romantica lacked for nothing, especially if it was expensive. And now I saw it certainly did not lack for men.

I lay stiff as a board, unable to move a finger to save myself as he stepped from my balcony and through those open french doors. I was alone in the house. Panic shivered up and down my suddenly icy spine. Then I remembered young Verity was sleeping in the next room, though Alfred was far away in his own cottage near the entrance, where the gatekeeper had lived with his wife and family in Jerusha's day.

The cat yowled, leaped off my chest, and fled under the bed. The canary remained silent in its cage, which was draped with a black silk cloth to remind the bird it was in fact nighttime and not singing time. The damn creature would sing at the drop of a hat.

I remained frozen to my spot, but it appeared it was not me the intruder was interested in. I felt his eyes on me though, as he stood by the windows, no doubt checking if I was awake, and which I had already determined it was better not to be. Unless he came at me with a knife or a weapon, in which case I would bloody well fight for my life. But then anger fizzled suddenly out of nowhere, rage, in fact, and I lost my cool. I sprang upright.

“Who the fuck are you and what are you doing in my house?” I yelled, sending the dog into a frenzy of yaps as it ran under the bed. The cat had already fled, and the canary bird, thinking morning had come early, began to sing. I could have strangled it.

He turned to look at me. I looked back at him. Over six feet tall, a black ski mask hiding his face, wide shoulders under whatever black long-sleeved garment he was wearing, dark sneakers, and a shiny steel gun, which was currently pointed at my chest.

“Jesus,” I mumbled, in a voice so strangled with fear I wondered where it came from. “Take whatever you want. Please. Then just go. I won't do anything, say anything, I won't even call the gendarmes, the FBI, anyone.”

He approached the bed and stood over me, the gun still aimed at my chest. I wished I were under the bed with the cat. The cat gave a cautious meow. The intruder put out a hand and touched it gently.

A
gentle
man with a lethal weapon, I did not know what to make of this though I did know how frightened I was. I could not even think of how to escape, how to get myself off that bed, across the room, and through that door where I could call for help. But call who? No one was here. Of course, there was Verity, no doubt sleeping the sleep of the gods, exhausted by her misadventures, as I was myself. Or at least I had been until my night visitor appeared.

I struggled upward against Jerusha's padded rose brocade headboard, thinking as I did so that if he shot me here it would ruin that poor woman's lovely bed. Her history would go with it, there'd maybe be a mention in the tabloids of the “once owned by then-famous-celebrity Jerusha.” Not much of a legacy. I believed she deserved better and I suddenly decided to try to give that to her.

I leaped from the bed in a move never to be repeated in my entire life no matter how often I went to the gym. Fear definitely lends strength. I was on him before he knew it, scrabbling at his chest, my thumbs searching for his eyes, the dog nipping at his ankles, the cat slowly stalking around him, looking, I knew, for an opening suitable for claws. My defenders. My little family.

I didn't realize I was yelling until the door was flung open and I glimpsed Verity standing there in an old T-shirt and skimpy shorts, golden hair straggling over her face. She peered through the strands, taking in the crime scene.

“Ohh…”
she exclaimed, a hand flying to her mouth. And then she screamed.

Verity was a good screamer. It echoed off the walls, out the open french doors into the quiet night gardens, bouncing back just as the storm broke. Lightning illuminated us like a stage set: the two half-dressed women; the man with the shiny steel gun and a ski mask over his head; the small animals arranged before him, one growling, one hissing. I might have laughed it was so funny, except I was scared as hell. And the canary awakened by the storm-light kept on singing.

 

16

Before I could move, the man was gone, through the open french doors.

“Fine, I'll call the cops,” I managed to say between claps of thunder. Then I remembered I was in France. I didn't know the French equivalent of 911. “Ohh,” I stammered.… Verity understood at once.

“Call the neighbor,” she yelled, wrenching her hair back from a face parchment-pale under the soft light of my bedside lamp.

“What neighbor?” I could not think who she meant, I knew no one.

“That man, Chad, he lives next door.”

I understood she meant the doctor, Chad Prescott, who'd helped me after my accident and owned the land contiguous with mine. He was my only neighbor. I did not like him, he was gruff, abrupt, good medically I'm sure, but no charmer, and he wanted my land. He certainly did not like me and now I was supposed to ask for his help?

“Jesus, Mirabella, there's a guy with a gun in the house,” Verity snarled. “Give me the phone.” She grabbed the handset and Chad's card from the night table where I'd left it, quickly thumbed the number, and handed me the phone.

He answered on the second ring. I heard him say, “Yes?” He did not sound a bit surprised or even puzzled at being awoken in the middle of the night; his voice was light, expectant.

“It's me,” I said (even as the thought crept through my head, it should have been, “It is I”). “Your neighbor,” I added.

“Ms. Matthews? I assume this is something important?”

You couldn't shake this fella, he didn't even sound interested in hearing my answer. But then I said, “There was a man in the house, in my room … he had a gun.…”

There was a short pause, a tiny flicker of time. “Are you alright?”

“Yup. Just scared.”

“Did you call the cops?”

I shook my head though of course he couldn't see me. Verity came and slumped on the bed next to me. She swept her hair to one side, clutching it in a sideways ponytail. I'll bet she was wondering what the hell she was doing here in this madhouse; she might have been better off with the cheating husband than with a potential killer running around with a gun.

The cat jumped up on the bed and went and sat on her lap. The canary sang, and the dog, panting as though from a run around the woods, reclined against my knee and I choked back my tears, not wanting Verity to see my fear.

“I don't know the emergency number here in France,” I said to Chad Prescott, sounding, I knew, as foolish as I felt, all helpless woman appealing to the strong male.

He said, “I'll be right over.”

I told Verity to get dressed; we couldn't have strangers and possibly policemen gaping at us in our night attire, such as it was. We both slipped on jeans and T-shirts, mine emblazoned with the logo
CLUB 55 SAINT-TROPEZ
—hers with
GRATEFUL DEAD FINAL CONCERT
.
Just in time.

The doorbell chimed a loud ear-blistering rendition of “La Marseillaise.” I'd have to change that, get something more soothing, though I'd still keep it French, of course. Hurrying to answer the door I asked myself how my mind could fill with such trivia when I had just almost lost my life? Was it a safeguard, so I wouldn't feel threatened? Afraid? But hell, I
was
afraid, I was shaking in my flip-flops I was so afraid.

Chad Prescott pushed into the hall and grabbed me by the shoulders. “Are you alright?”

His firm hands held me up since my knees were definitely wobbly.

“Yes,” I said as calmly as I could manage. Then I spoiled it all by bursting into tears.

He did not, thank God, put his arms around me and tell me I was okay, it was all going to be alright. In fact he said it very much was not alright. An intruder with a weapon meant business.

“What was he after? Do you know?”

His eyes searched mine, a deep narrow blue, or was it brown? Too dark to tell, and when I thought about it he was about the same height and build as my would-be attacker.

“It might have been
you,
” I said. “
You
could have come into my room with a gun and tried to kill me.
You
want my villa.” I nailed him with my glare.

“Don't be ridiculous.” He turned on his heel and made for the door. “I can see you're alright. I'll leave you for the cops to deal with.”

The whine of sirens could be heard rapidly approaching. In seconds blue lights were flashing outside the window.

The three cops didn't knock, they just strode in. One grabbed Chad by his collar, pinning him against the wall. A second went and stood in front of him, gun in hand. It was like a scene in news broadcasts I'd seen on TV. The gun was a Glock. I'd heard the name, and once you've seen one, it's easy to recognize. Whatever, it was lethal looking and I had no doubt it was loaded.

I asked myself how this could have happened. My peaceful villa, Jerusha's home, Aunt Jolly's legacy, the Siamese cat—still on the bed along with the sausage mutt with the soulful eyes, while the damned canary that, despite being covered for the night, now would not shut up. And Verity, whose screams still rattled in my head, and the next-door neighbor who'd obviously bitten off more than he could chew merely by coming to our aid. Even if he did behave like a shit once he got here.

“Leave him alone,” I said to the cop who was holding Chad Prescott, speaking my just-sufficiently-decent French so I thought he might get my message. He ignored me. Perhaps I hadn't said it right. I tried again in English.

“Leave him,” a male voice said in French from behind me.

At least they understood
him
.

“Bon soir,”
I said to the newcomer, trying a smile. He ignored me and stepped up to Chad, standing so close in front of him they must have breathed the same tiny bit of air. He thrust his face even closer.

“What are you doing here?” he barked at Chad.

It was a true bark, a fast, authoritative, questioning tone that let you know he meant business. Chad threw back his head, out of breath's way I guessed, and said nothing. The look of contempt on his face struggled with anger.

“No, no, it's alright, he's not the intruder,” I told the cop quickly. “He only came to help us.”

I grabbed Verity by her cold hand and dragged her forward so they could see who we were, understand what two lone women had just gone through: a masked man in their house in the middle of the night, with a gun.

I spilled out the story in English. The cops stared at me like I was a crazy woman.

“Perhaps it would be better if we started at the beginning,” the officer in charge said, also in English.

I knew that voice; I knew that man. He was the Colonel. The stocky, bearded, uniformed gendarme with the piercing eyes that I'd met after the accident. He was the one who had questioned me, made notes about the small green car, the anonymous Ducati. The cop who, as far as I knew, had not yet come up with any answers. I heard him sigh.

“It's you again,” he said in a resigned I-might-have-known-it voice.

I remembered we had not gotten along; after all I had just been in a terrible accident, been helicoptered out of the canyon, lost my beautiful blue Maserati, almost lost my life. And Verity's. Somebody had tried to kill me then, and this … this
Colonel
 … had acted like it was my fault. So now I did it again. I burst into tears. Me, who never cries, never, ever, at least only at weddings, and that's probably because they are not my own.

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