Read The Widow Online

Authors: Anne Stuart

The Widow

 

Aristide Pompasse stood in his apartment in Florence, staring out into the street below, well pleased with his life. He was the world's greatest living artist, and his paintings were worth millions. True, he hadn't been painting for the past few years. And no wonder—he'd lost his light, his muse, his inspiration.

But all that would change. Charlie would be back soon. He should have realized how much he needed her, but Pompasse was not the sort of man to need people. He was accustomed to being the center of the universe, and the thought that someone could actually, willingly leave him still managed to astonish him.

But now that he admitted how much he needed her, it would be simple enough to get her back. And then he would paint once more. He should have taken care of that ugly little detail years ago—he'd allowed sentiment to rule him. But with Charlie back he could start again.

The bells of the city rang out over the noise of the traffic. Two o'clock. He needed a glass of wine to celebrate his new life. He went out into the hallway, heading for the curving marble stairs. There was a bounce in his step, a lightness in his heart. The deed was done, a new life was beginning, and he felt like a young man. He would paint again, and he would live forever.

He was whistling under his breath, but the sound stopped as he halted at the top of the stairs.

And came face-to-face with his murderer.

Also available from MIRA Books and ANNE STUART

SHADOWS AT SUNSET

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THE WIDOW
ANNE STUART

To my mother, Virginia Stuart,
a writer and a role model who finally gets a book
dedicated to her. It's long overdue. Thanks, Moo.

Prologue

A
ristide Pompasse stood in his apartment in Florence, staring out into the street below, well pleased with his life. He was the world's greatest living artist, and his paintings were worth millions. True, he hadn't been painting for the last few years. And no wonder—he'd lost his light, his muse, his inspiration.

But all that would change. She would be back soon. He should have realized how much he needed her, but Pompasse was not the sort of man who needed people. He was accustomed to being the center of the universe, and the thought that someone could actually, willingly leave still managed to astonish him.

But now that he admitted how much he wanted her, it would be simple enough to get her back. And then he would paint once more.

He should have taken care of that ugly little detail years ago. It was nothing more than housekeeping. He'd allowed sentiment to rule him. Others might call it vanity, but he knew he wasn't a vain man. He simply understood that the preservation of his gift was worth any sacrifice. Even if most of those sacrifices were made by others, they were blessed to be part of a greater calling.

It should be almost finished by now. And once Charlie knew what he had done for her she would come back to him and all would be well.

He looked around him, savoring the beauty of the elegant old apartment. Maybe Charlie would be happier here in Florence, rather than at the villa. There were too many memories, too many people there. He would keep her here, away from everyone, keep her all to himself. And she would never try to leave him again.

He turned from the window to stare up at the painting over the marble fireplace in his bedroom. A masterpiece—one of his very best. But with Charlie back he would start again. She was his light, his inspiration, and he'd been arrogant not to admit it. From the first moment he saw her he knew he had to possess her, and as long as he'd held on to her all had been well.

Five years later he still couldn't quite understand how she could have left him. How anyone could leave him. Didn't he shower her with money and jewels and all the things young women usually delighted in? But Charlie hadn't cared about the gifts.

He'd made her image world-famous, immortalized her in his art. He'd never hit her, abused her. He wouldn't have minded if she'd taken lovers—he certainly had. All he'd wanted was for her to stay.

She would come back now, he knew it. She'd become stronger—strong enough to leave him—but she wouldn't be able to resist. His charm was legendary, and he would use all of it. And she would return to him.

The bells of the city rang out over the noise of the traffic. His ancient, beloved city of Florence. Pompasse was French, but he had the soul of an Italian Renaissance master. Tuscany was in his blood, and as he looked out over the rooftops of the city he could see the Arno gilded in the sunlight. Two o'clock. It should be done, then.

He needed a glass of wine to celebrate his new life. He went out into the hallway, heading for the curving marble stairs that led to the first floor of his duplex, and there was a bounce in his step, a lightness in his heart. The deed was done, a new life was beginning, and he felt like a young man. He would paint again, and he would live forever.

He was whistling under his breath, but the sound stopped as he halted at the top of the stairs.

She was standing there, the last person he ever expected to see. And he knew he was going to die.

1

F
inding a dead body wasn't Connor Maguire's favorite way to start the day.

He'd been breaking into an apartment in Florence, planning on a little discreet research, when he discovered the corpse of its owner. And not just any corpse. The apartment belonged to the great Aristide Pompasse, the world's most famous living artist. Or at least he was, until maybe an hour ago, Maguire guessed. It didn't take any great powers of observation—he'd spent years as a war correspondent, in the Middle East, in Africa, in Kosovo. He knew a dead body when he saw one, and Pompasse was most definitely dead, though he hadn't been for long. Maguire closed the door with a silent click and leaned against it.

“Well, hell,” he said mildly enough. Somehow the situation called for stronger language than that, but all he could think was what a stinking mess he'd gotten himself into.

He was planning to write the tell-all book of the millennium. He'd spent the last five years grinding out stories for
Starlight,
Marc Gregory's internationally sleazy tabloid, but in Pompasse he'd found not only his meal ticket but his raison d'être. Pompasse was a man with enough skeletons in his closet to support Maguire quite nicely. He'd been working on the story for weeks, and it was going to be his ticket back to Australia.

The body was lying on the marble floor in the foyer, at the bottom of the curving staircase that led from the bedrooms above. His dark, intense eyes were blank, his skin as cold and lifeless as the marble floor. There was no blood.

Maguire made himself cross the floor and squat down beside the old man. He didn't want to touch him. It wasn't squeamishness. He'd lost any sensitivity years ago—a life spent in the news business tended to wipe out any tender sensibilities. The more he'd learned about Pompasse the more contempt he'd felt for him—Maguire assumed it was the last ounce of idealism in his own, otherwise tarnished, soul. The old man had deserved what was coming to him, and Maguire didn't give a damn who had dished it out. Except, of course, that it would sell more copies of the paper and, eventually, his book.

He put his hand against the old man's neck. Cold, flaccid, dead skin. Maybe he'd been dead for more than an hour. He glanced back up at the winding stairs. It would have been easy enough for an old man like Pompasse to make a misstep, particularly if he'd had too much wine. One little slip and down he would go.

Maguire sat back on his heels, reaching in his pocket for his cigarettes. That was one thing he liked about Italy—he could smoke anywhere he damn well pleased, probably even in the Duomo itself if he had the insane urge to go there. No one to frown at him and lecture him on the dangers of smoking.

He lit the cigarette and took a deep drag, blowing it at the old man's still form. Yes, it was an accident, easy to explain.

So why did it feel like murder?

He rose abruptly, glancing down at his hands. It had been a simple enough plan to break into the elegant apartment. He wasn't hampered by too many scruples, and he'd assumed Pompasse was back at his villa outside the tiny village of Geppi. He'd simply been planning to search the apartment for anything that might be useful, shocking, shameful in Pompasse's life. In particular, the diaries that Pompasse had kept over his long career, detailing his paintings, his models and, Maguire devoutly hoped, his love affairs. There were volumes and volumes of the stuff—Pompasse had an exalted opinion of his life and work, and was known to document everything. Getting access to those diaries would make all the difference. He just hadn't counted on finding a corpse.

He stared down at Pompasse, coolly calculating the impact this could have on his future. On the one hand, a dead artist was worth a hell of a lot more than a live one. And a scandal involving young girls and one very dirty old man, who happened to be world-famous, would pretty much guarantee a solid income for the next few years to anyone who knew enough to write the story.

On the other hand, he wasn't sure he was pleased to find himself at the scene of a death, particularly as he had strong motives not to like the old bastard. Pompasse had gotten wind of Maguire's interest, and he'd had his lawyer try a little intimidation with Gregory. It had backfired, of course, but the hostility between the two camps was now on record.

None of this mattered if Pompasse's death had been an accident. But Maguire knew damned well why he had this itchy feeling at the back of his neck, why all his nerves were alert, why he wanted to get the hell out of that place before someone could prove he'd been there.

He'd been a journalist for fifteen years, straight out of college, and his instincts had been honed over those years, particularly in war zones. He not only knew a dead body when he saw one—he knew a murder when he saw one. He'd be willing to bet that's what this was, even though there was no sign of a struggle or foul play. The sooner he got the hell out of this apartment, the better.

He moved through the rooms, his reporter's eyes cataloging everything, storing it in the back of his brain for future reference. Only one bedroom was used, the sheets tangled, but there was no way to tell if it had held more than one person. The air smelled stale, dead.

The kitchen had dishes stacked in the sink, crumbs and cheese on the wooden chopping block. Either he'd given his maid some time off or no one knew Pompasse had been there. He glanced in the empty living room, then stopped, staring at the huge portrait.

It was the same woman whose picture hung in the bedroom. There was a sketch of her on the wall of the upper balcony, and a watercolor in the foyer, looking down at Pompasse's body. For a moment he was paralyzed, transfixed. Staring at the portrait.

The woman in the painting was little more than a child. Curled up in a tight, protective ball, the girl stared out at the world with a mixture of hope and defiance, her odd golden eyes full of raw emotion, her tawny hair almost obscuring her delicate face. He recognized the painting of course, as well as the others. He'd done his research—they were from Pompasse's Gold Period, his most famous stretch of artistic endeavor. He'd become more abstract since then, harsher, the various models no longer recognizable. But he knew this model. Knew the haunting expression, the delicacy of her long legs and narrow, bare feet. It was Pompasse's child bride, his muse and his inspiration, though for the life of him he couldn't remember her name.

At the moment it didn't matter. He skirted Pompasse's body in the foyer, stifling the regret that he hadn't brought one of the high-tech cameras he usually carried with him. He'd only been interested in the diaries, and he hadn't thought there'd be anything worth photographing in the apartment. Molly would have been ashamed of him for being so shortsighted. It just went to show that a reporter, even a hack like he'd become, needed to be prepared.

He wiped the doorknob with the tail of his shirt. He didn't have time to do more, and while he didn't think he'd touched anything else, he figured getting out of there was more important than trying to wipe out any trace of fingerprints. There was no reason why anyone would think he'd been there. Sure, he had a grudge against Pompasse for getting in the way of his story, but it wasn't a killing grudge.

Maguire was out of the building and halfway down the street before he breathed a sigh of relief, certain no one had seen him. Maybe his luck was going to hold, after all. He had no reason to feel guilty—just because he despised the old man didn't mean he'd killed him. He despised most of the people he wrote about. Besides, he could come up with a pretty good argument that Pompasse's death would hurt his book deal, not help it. Now that Pompasse was dead, maybe there would no longer be a market for his salacious history.

Maguire knew otherwise, but he could probably convince the police of it. He'd always been good at talking his way into and out of any difficult situation. Assuming no one thought he had anything to do with the old man's death, a murder was the best possible thing that could have happened. The old man deserved it, and it would sell books. Maguire was nothing if not pragmatic.

The café near his run-down apartment was empty in the middle of the afternoon, and he had the place to himself. He was halfway through the pack of cigarettes he'd sworn would be his last when he remembered the paintings in the apartment. The young bride—he still couldn't remember her name. She'd left him years ago, or else Pompasse had tired of her. He no longer painted women with luminous eyes—his models were younger still, pale and frightened-looking creatures.

So who had killed him? He was willing to bet it was one of the women that Pompasse always had around him. The old man had liked his harem—during his research Maguire had found out that he had mistresses from all periods of his life still in residence out at his countryside villa. Any of his castoffs would have had reason to push the old man down the stairs.

He stubbed out his cigarette, then lit another one. He was smoking too much and he knew it, but right now he had more important things to worry about than the state of his lungs. He was putting his money on the one with the golden eyes. The widow, Madame Pompasse herself. She lived in the States, but that didn't mean she couldn't have come back and killed him. If she was the one who did it he could find proof easily enough—he wasn't constrained by the kinds of rules that hamstrung the
polizia.
And it would make one hell of a final chapter.

But for now, he was going to finish the crumpled pack of Gitanes and his cup of coffee, and then put in a call to Gregory. And maybe tomorrow he'd quit smoking.

 

Charlotte Thomas was in the midst of kneading bread dough when she first heard that her husband had died. It had been a peaceful morning—in the sweet-smelling environs of her apartment kitchen she'd been immersed in dough and yeast and cinnamon, and the calm, rhythmic slap of the dough against the marble counter. She loved making bread—it was a form of meditation, done in an early-morning kitchen with only the sound of birds outside.

She lived in the middle of Manhattan, and the sound of the birds was usually overlaid by the noise of traffic, even at six o'clock in the morning. But serenity was only a state of mind, and she ignored the rumble of engines and the shriek of tires, concentrating on the imperceptible noise of the pigeons that nested in the crevasses of the old prewar building on East Seventy-third Street.

If she'd been listening to the radio she probably would have heard the news, but she didn't like reality to intrude on her baking time. When she was kneading dough she could close her eyes and imagine she was in a different time and place, where nothing mattered but getting the dough to rise. She didn't answer the phone's insistent ring, but the answering machine outwitted her, and within moments she heard her fiancé's voice, stoic, calm, aristocratic, telling her that Pompasse was dead.

Henry Richmond was a lawyer, and while he was devoted to her, he was also slightly lacking in imagination and sensitivity. He left the brief message on her machine, changing her life, and then hung up.

Charlie pushed against the bread, curiously detached. Pompasse had been seventy-three years old, and not in the best of health. He loved his wine and his French cigarettes, his rich food and his indolent lifestyle. When he was painting he was like a man possessed—tireless, energetic, full of youth and life. When he wasn't working he was a querulous old man. And now he was dead. Probably his heart, Charlie thought, turning the dough over and punching it.

Her rings were in a little Limoges dish beside the marble counter she used for working with dough, and she could see the huge canary-yellow diamond Pompasse had given her when he'd married her. She had been barely seventeen. He had been sixty.

He'd been everything to her. A father, a protector, someone who worshipped her, someone who needed her. He gave her a home and stability after years of trailing around after her rootless mother, and he'd used his legendary charm with devastating effect. And she'd loved him.

Knead, push, pull. Turn, slap, punch. The newspapers would start calling again. She kept changing her number—they didn't have her most recent one, but she knew it wouldn't be long before they tracked her down. They'd be lying in wait outside her restaurant, with film crews shoving microphones in her face and lights blinding her. The world's most famous living artist was now dead. What did his former wife think of it all?

She didn't want to think at all. She was strong, a survivor, and she'd learned to put the pain into separate compartments in her brain so she could concentrate on the job at hand. Denial was an underrated tool for coping, and she used it well. Turn, slap, punch. The dough was developing a nice elastic sheen—the kneading was almost finished. She didn't want to stop. Didn't want to put it in a bowl to rise on the back of her six-burner stove, didn't want to wash the flour and butter from her hands and put the canary diamond back on her slender finger.

She'd tried to give it back to him when she'd left him, but he had refused to take it. He had insisted it was only hers, it matched her mysterious yellow eyes, and in the end she couldn't say no to him. So she'd worn it for him, even though she never saw him. In fact, she hadn't seen him once in the five years since she had left him. And she'd wear it today, in his memory.

The shrill ring of the telephone made her jump, and she grabbed it, holding on to her self-control by a thread. It was her mother.

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