Authors: Jill Tahourdin
Tags: #Harlequin Romance 1967
When Richard hooted she asked in surprise,
“What’s so funny?”
“Sorry. Just the thought of you as an undergardener.”
“Because I’m small? But I’m very strong. Wiry, isn’t it? I bend but don’t break.”
Richard eyed her soft contours and sobered down.
“All right. I doubt if wiry is quite the word, somehow. But do go on.”
“That was how I met Bernard. He’s the fourth son, and there wasn’t much money left after they’d all been sent to public school and so on—which was why they were growing shrubs and flowers and bulbs and things commercially. It was either that or throw the house open to the public at half a crown a time-—and Bernard’s mother couldn’t face that.”
“I see. And Bernard?”
“He was lucky—he came into a legacy from a godfather. So we got engaged and decided to emigrate. More future than at home. He came out to Africa first, to learn all about tobacco farming in Southern Rhodesia. Now he’s on the point of leasing a farm so that we can get married.”
Richard’s glance was quizzical.
“Meantime I’m visiting Aunt Drusilla, who sent me the extra fare to come on here from Beira, my port for Salisbury. When I fly up there, I intend to set up in my own line.”
“As under-gardener?” The eyebrow shot up in an arc.
“Now you’re laughing at me. Actually, as something much grander. Consultant Garden Planner.”
“What on earth
“Sounds terrific, doesn’t it? All it means, of course, is that I’ll go round giving advice—for a suitable fee. How to make new gardens, re-do old ones, construct rockeries, ponds, flower borders or whatever. Bernard says Salisbury is the fastest-growing city in Africa, so there’ll be plenty of scope. And later on, when we get the farm, I’ll start my own plant nurseries. They’ll be useful for helping to pay the ground rents, Bernard hopes.”
“H’m. Got it all neatly worked out, hasn’t he? Bit like in
—‘Brand-new farm an’ a brand-new wife’—isn’t it? Very idyllic.”
Scenting irony, she had looked at him suspiciously, but his profile had given away nothing.
The eyebrow had shot up again, but he had made no comment.
A few miles further on he told her casually, “I expect to be stationed in Salisbury myself, later on. My London firm has offered me a junior partnership and the management of their new Salisbury branch.”
“Yes. But I am a Rhodesian—so the likeliest choice for the job, I suppose.”
She liked his modesty.
“I say, Richard, we may run across each other up there, then?”
His grunt was disappointingly non-committal. She felt a little snubbed that he didn’t seem more pleased. She wondered how he and Bernard would get on together. Richard was older, more mature than Bernard
though Bernard would have matured in the two years since she had seen him.
Perhaps they would never meet. Salisbury, she gathered, was a large and
crowded city. It would be sad if
THEY were winding, now, between clumps of flowering willow that smelled like mimosa. Alix said doubtfully: “Of course I can see that Paradise is made, in a way, for the sort of popular playground your father visualises. But I can’t help wondering
Again she caught that hint of diablerie in his expression.
how the old-timers like your aunt are going to take it?”
“Between you and me, Alix, it’s going to split the place from top to bottom. There’ll be a fight—just what Herrold Senior thrives on. The Fors and the Againsts. The Fors being the ones who’d like to see a bit of life round them—or don’t mind selling out at the nice profit my father offers.”
“And the Againsts?”
“The Againsts being the diehards, who want to hang on to the
unspoiled Nature and all that, with nothing more exciting happening than the tide coming in and going out again.”
“It’s easy to see which side
are on,” Alix said. “Well, why not?” he retorted. “I’m looking forward to it as a job—I’m keen on estate planning. It’s my Thing. And quite honestly, Alix, I don’t see why thirty or forty elderly householders should expect to monopolise a perfect spot like this for ever.”
except that they found it first—and might be unhappy to see it ruined.”
There we go, Richard thought vexedly. In opposite camps already. Damn. This really is a pity. I’m attracted by her. She’s a sweetheart. She’s got me all stirred up
“Look, there’s ‘Laguna’,” he told her a few seconds later. “That thatch-roofed pink house in among the trees. See it?”
How charming. Don’t you adore thatch?”
“Wouldn’t touch it out here. Charming, yes. But too risky. I’ve seen too many thatched houses go up in smoke. Quick, Alix, we’re nearly there. When can I see you again? When will you come out and have dinner with me?”
Alix smiled and shook her head.
He glanced at her left hand.
“What? Oh—that you’ve got a understanding with this Bernard character, and may some day be going to marry him?”
“Have promised to marry him. Soon,” she corrected.
“Must you?” Richard asked plaintively.
Alix shot him a quick, uncertain glance, but he was looking straight ahead.
“Well—that’s why I came out to Africa.”
“I know, I know. But till you do, are you in purdah? Do you have to forswear the company of all other men?”
“N—no. I suppose not.”
“I bet Bernard enjoys himself. Who’s he with?”
“A tobacco fa
er called Barrett; perhaps you know him?”
“Of course. Old family friend. I used to be rather smitten with his daughter Sandra. Pretty kid.”
“Bernard rides and plays tennis with Sandra. He sent me a riding snapshot of her. She certainly does look awfully pretty.”
“Believe me, she is. Dark, flashing-eyed type, looks stunning on a horse.”
“I could see that,” Alix agreed, conscious of an inner pang of—could it be
“Look, Alix”—his tone was reasonable—“I’m no wolf. But till you exchange that loaned signet ring for a plain gold band, I give you notice here and now that I consider the field remains open.”
“Field?” Her eyes widened at him.
“Certainly. Tell Bernard that from me if you like
it’ll probably bring him down here at the double. And meantime, dear
Alix, please say when you’ll come and have dinner with me. I know
a charming roadhouse the other side of Edward
She looked up at him again, caught his quick sideways glance at her, saw that his grey eyes held an engaging twinkle. She thought with relief, he’s joking. He doesn’t mean a word of it. With a laugh she gave in. “All right. Thanks. I’ll ring you some time, shall I?”
“Couldn’t we make a date right now?”
“Please—I must find out my aunt’s plans for me first.”
For some reason he didn’t seem very satisfied. He assented but with obvious reservations.
The car skirted some flowering gums and stopped at the gates of ‘Laguna.’ Richard got out to open them. The drive was gravelled and curved between banked, lushly blooming shrubs and bushes. A chromatic, clashing muddle, but surprisingly successful, Alix thought, her professional interest roused.
A weedy coloured man was raking the gravel. He wore dirty, raggedy pants and shirt and a disgraceful old hat. This he took off in amiable greeting, and Richard punctiliously lifted his hand in response.
Alix had time to notice the yellowed, dilated eyes and vacuous grin. She felt a little shudder run through her. Perhaps it was premonitory—she couldn’t guess, then, at the part this coloured man was to play in the drama of the next few weeks
When the drive turned, the house came into view. It was long and single-storied with shutters turned back from the french windows. Pink ivy geranium spilled over the low veranda wall, and masses of hydrangea, in new leaf, nestled at its base. Around it spread green lawns, roughish, rather neglected, on which trees cast pools of shade.
Alix liked it. It looked shabby and lived-in and pleasantly private, screened as it was by trees from its neighbours on either side. The rough coastal track wound past it, and the lagoon lay at its feet.
Richard pulled up at the foot of the shallow steps leading to the wide stoep. A big handsome woman with short-cut, crisp grey hair came out of an inner room, her right hand on the collar of a tan ridgeback dog.
Alix cried, “Darling!” and jumped out of the car.
“My dear child, how very nice that you managed to get a lift,” boomed Lady Merrick in a resonant contralto.
Alix hugged her warmly.
“How are you, Aunt Drusilla?”
“Fighting fit, my dear. And you?—but I don’t need to ask, do I? Blooming. Look, you must meet my guardian angel. Nelson, say hallo to Alix.”
The ridgeback sniffed Alix’s outstretched hand. Then he waved his tail gently, sank back on his haunches, and gravely offered a paw.
“What a darling,” cried Alix, delighted. “And now
must meet Richard.”
Richard had remained discreetly beside the car. Gaily she called him.
“Come and meet my aunt. Darling, this is Richard Herrold. We met at the Murrays and he drove me here. But of course you know. Mrs. Murray promised me she’d telephone.”
“My line happens to be out of order. I did
know,” said Lady Merrick. Her normal expression was that of a benevolent mare; but Richard, half a head taller than she was, found himself quailing now as she' scrutinised him.
“Herrold? Andrew Herrold’s son? The architect?” she demanded sharply, not offering to shake hands.
“I’m afraid so, Lady Merrick.”
At something in her aunt’s tone of voice Alix glanced at her in startled enquiry. But all she saw was a polite, conventional smile. The smile on the face of the tigress, thought Richard, who knew a thing or two that Alix didn’t.
“Well, thank you very much indeed for bringing my niece along. Most kind. If you wouldn’t mind, when you go, just lifting her suitcases down and leaving them on the drive, the garden boy will bring them indoors. Thank you again, Mr. Herrold.
What in the world? wondered Alix, aghast.
Nelson having sniffed Richard from all angles, was now clearly on the point of offering his paw.
“Nelson!” snapped Lady Merrick. “Basket!”
With marked reluctance the ridgeback betook himself to a vast dog’s bed beneath a corner table. Lady Merrick said again, pointedly, “Goodbye, Mr. Herrold.”
Alix babbled. What could her hospitable aunt be thinking of?
A quick shake of Richard’s dark head, a
warned her to pipe down.
“Goodbye, Lady Merrick. I very much enjoyed Alix’s company,” he said pleasantly. “Don’t forget my telephone number, will you, Alix? Edward 136. Any time you like to make it, m’m? Till then.”
Descending the steps, he lifted out her cases and placed them neatly side by side in the drive. Then with a smile, brimful of charm, that included them both, he waved and drove away.
“Most unfortunate, my dear, that you should have become involved with
that man’s son,”
boomed Lady Merrick on the lower register. “Not that I blame you, you couldn’t possibly have
own. But you must have nothing more to do with him, dearest. When I tell you about his dreadful father, you won’t want to. A grasping speculator. A
bent on vulgarising one of the Cape’s finest beauty spots.”
When Alix remained silent—being unable to
of the right thing to say—she went on briskly, taking her niece’s arm, “But don’t let’s t
of him now—it makes me boil. Come along and let’s have tea. How pretty you’ve grown, dear.”
Aunt Drusilla. A good skin and a decent figure, but hardly pretty. Not like Mummy and Daphne.”
“Whether or not, it’s lovely to have you here.”
“Lovely for me too,” Alix said in her warm voice. And of course it was. But behind the happiness was just a pinprick of something. That ultimatum about Richard. “You won’t want to.”
In point of fact she did want to see Richard again. He was amusing and intelligent and congenial. She believed they could easily have become good friends. And he had brothers and a sister in the house in Edward. It would have been pleasant to know them. She needed to make new friends in this big new continent, at the start of the rather tremendous adventure on which she had embarked.
But she reflected sensibly that if her aunt was seriously feuding with the father, she couldn’t very well insist on having dates with the son.
She gave a small regretful sigh. A pity
A plump coloured girl in a pink overall, starched white apron and cap was pushing a tea trolley into the room.
“Tea ready, meddam, please,” she gulped. The moony eyes that stole a glance at Alix showed traces of recent tears.
“Thank you, Effelina, bring it here,” Lady Merrick said crisply. “This is Miss Alix, my niece.”
Effelina said, “Good afternoon, Miss Ellix” in her most refined voice, gulped again and fled.
“Hopeless,” shrugged Lady Merrick resignedly. “What’s the matter with her?”
“Her love-life, my dear. She’s just heard that her husband
her husband really, but by courtesy—has been gaoled for peddling dagga.”
“Oh—poor thing. What is dagga, Aunt
“This frightful weed they all smoke. Sort of drag, same thing more or less as marijuana, reefers—the thing those juvenile delinquents smoke in America, you must have heard of it. Recently there’s been a wave of dagga-smoking around here—can’t think where they get it, as it’s illegal to grow or sell it—or for that matter how they afford it. It makes them perfectly useless till the effects wear off. Dangerous too, sometimes. However, I suppose I’ll have to advance her the cash to bail
out. One usually does in the end.”
“Really? Why?” asked Alix, bewildered.
“No husband, no girl, my dear. When you take on a house servant and give her a room, you take on her current domestic life too. Even a baby sometimes! Sub rosa, of course, but we all do it. Simply wouldn’t get a servant at all nowadays, otherwise. Try these scones, my dear. Christina will be offended if we don’t finish them.”
Alix ate her scone and took another. They were feather-light and delicious and she was hungry after her journey. Poor banished Richard
“Does that garden boy smoke dagga?” she demanded, recalling how peculiar he had looked.
“Francis? Of course. But he’s such a good gardener
got the authentic green fingers. And anyway he’s Christina’s husband. Unfortunately, dagga makes him rather pugnacious. Still, one’s got to have a garden boy—and where to find a better?”
With a sigh for the vagaries of coloured servants in general (only where would she or anyone else be without them?) Lady Merrick took Alix’s empty teacup and began to refill it. As she handed it back she remembered something.
“There’s mail waiting for you. From Rhodesia,” she said, and rang for Effelina to fetch it in. Alix blushed with pleasure.
But before she could tear open the flimsy air-letters
addressed in Bernard’s scrawl—a big American car, flashing with chromium, drew up in front of the house.
From it emerged a tall man in a debonair suit of tropical light grey, with a beautiful silk shirt and tie. He took the veranda steps in two vigorous strides.
“Am I in time for tea, Lady D.?” he asked, standing smiling in the doorway.
Nelson, lifting his head from the edge of his basket, gave a muted growl.
“Quiet, Nelson. Of course, Eric, come along in,” beamed Lady Merrick, getting up and offering her hand. “Delighted to see you. Come and meet my niece, Alix Rayne. She’s just arrived. Alix, this is Eric Gore—he has that superb farm at the head of the lagoon, quite our local showplace, isn’t it, Eric?”
“You’re a flatterer, Lady D.” But his look was complacent.
Alix murmured a civility and took his outstretched hand. It held hers firmly and just a second too long.
She found herself looking up at a blond head and face that would have been perfect above a Reichswehr uniform in one of those cloak-and-dagger films. Ice-blue eyes were studying her with candid admiration—too candid for her comfort. To her annoyance she felt her colour rise.
“Welcome to Paradise, Miss Rayne.”
Eric Gore spoke cordially, in a light smooth voice with an overtone of some accent that Alix couldn’t quite place—was he a foreigner? “I hope you’ve come prepared to make a long stay with us here?”
Alix smiled and shook her head.
“Well, no—just a short one. I’m on my way to Southern Rhodesia,” she said, thinking how unusually handsome he was, but wishing he wouldn’t look at her so hard with those remarkable eyes.
“Then we must do everything we can to delay you,” he told her with his confident smile. “You’re going to enjoy Paradise, you know
everybody does. Folks come, see, and are conquered. Some of them come back here for good and all.”
“I’m not surprised. I think it’s lovely,” Alix said politely. She had recovered her poise and was curious to learn what had brought Eric Gore to visit her aunt. It wasn’t long before she found out.
“Of course you must bring Miss Rayne over to Northolme on Tuesday, Lady D.,” he said.
“Why, yes, I will, Eric. Good way for her to meet everybody at one go. Northolme is Eric’s farm, Alix. You’ll love it—so picturesque, there under the mountains. And the most darling Jerseys—Eric breeds them. Three lumps, isn’t it, Eric?”
“Thanks.” He took his cup and at last came to the point. “I say, have you heard the latest buzz. Lady D.?”
“No. What is it?” Lady Merrick gave him rather a harassed look. Buzzes had been rife in Paradise ever since Andrew Herrold—“Tornado Andrew” as someone had aptly named
—descended on the place six months ago and mooted his outrageous plans. Though often exaggerated, there was usually a grain of truth in them.
“It’s the Braines—they’re going to sell, I’m afraid. It seems Herrold’s company has made them such a good offer the Colonel says he can’t afford to let it go, with expenses rising and his Army pension getting no bigger.”
Lady Merrick snorted.
“So he’s ratting, is he?”
“It looks like it. And Chambers is all ready to sign on the dotted line too, they say.”
“If they both sell, the brute will have got me hemmed in,” Lady Merrick said wryly. “And I don’t trust him not to resort to the
tricks to get me out. Pigsties on my boundaries—or worse.”
Eric Gore gave her one of his keen ice-blue looks.
“In that case, we must think up some way for you to retaliate,” he suggested smoothly.
“We certainly must,” agreed Lady Merrick with crisp decision.
Alix mentally said goodbye to any hope of meeting the other young Herrolds, or of dining with Richard or even seeing
again. She felt absurdly disappointed, considering the shortness of their acquaintance.
“Herrold wants my land and theirs for his disgusting caravan park,” Lady Merrick went on in tones of deep scorn. “Your uncle, poor darling, would turn in his grave.” With a sudden startling neigh of laughter she added, “The creature actually offered me—through his lawyers, of course
—eight thousand pounds
for my three acres and the house. He little knows we’ve got woodworm so badly I’m always half expecting the roof to fall in. But even so, nothing would induce me to sell to him.”
“Bravo, bravo, that’s the spirit,” applauded Eric Gore, looking at Alix as if confident of her approval too.
Alix wondered why, if he was farming in the district, he should object so strongly to Paradise being developed. Surely it would mean a better market for his produce?”
She returned his look warily. He was certainly striking with his height and looks and air of calm assurance. But she didn’t care about those eyes. Their scrutiny, and the steely clasp of his long-fingered hand, had given her an uneasy kind of thrill. Her heart had jerked almost as if with fear. Absurd, of course—Aunt Drusilla obviously thought a lot of him, and she should be a pretty good judge.
“Why not bring Miss Rayne over early on Tuesday, in time for tea?” he was suggesting to her aunt now with flattering eagerness. “Then I could show her round the place before the rest arrive.”
“Thank you, Eric. Delighted.”
Alix murmured, “Thank you,” too
rather confusedly, feeling her poise desert her again. What
it about this man?
“I’ve called a meeting of all the property owners in Paradise to discuss the present emergency,” he explained for her benefit as he set down his empty cup. “Action stations now, isn’t it, Lady D.? I must be off and go the rounds now, and make certain they’re all going to turn up. I’ll expect you on Tuesday at four, then?
He took the veranda steps in two strides again, slid lithely into his powerful car, and was off.
“A perfectly charming man, and a
of strength in our fight against this Herrold menace,” Lady Merrick boomed deeply when the dust of his going had settled. “How did you like him, Alix dear?”
“He—rather puzzled me. Is he a German, Aunt Drusilla?”
“German? Nonsense, dear. Whatever gave you that idea?”
“I don’t quite know. His looks, perhaps—rather Teutonic, aren’t they? And then that slipped sort of accent
“That? Oh, but there are so many odd accents in this country. You mustn’t expect everyone to speak B.B.C. English here, you know.”
“No, of course not. I must say, though, Mr. Gore doesn’t look a bit like my idea of a Cape farmer.”
“Perhaps not—if your idea was some old Boer with a beard like Kruger. But he seems to be a highly successful one. Rolling, they say. He only came here a few years ago—but such an asset to Paradise! Apart from what his farm produces, he’s a keen fisherman and a dead shot—and so generous with the bag! You’ll be dining tonight off a haunch of venison he sent me. He often goes out after buck, you know. He’s a wonderful sportsman.”
He certainly sounds a paragon, Alix thought, with a trace of derision. Perhaps I’ll like him more when I get to know him better.
“He seemed very taken with you, dear,” Lady Merrick went on. “I do hope you and he are going to be friends.”
Like most of her sex she was at heart a match-maker. She had never greatly approved of her niece’s engagement to young Bernard Falkener, considering it too much of a boy and girl affair, with too long a waiting period involved. Eric Gore would be a different proposition altogether
But Alix couldn’t feel that a friendship between herself and Eric Gore was at all likely. Tactfully she changed the subject.
“I’m looking forward to seeing the farm. And now
may I read my letter, Aunt Drusilla?”
Her aunt got up.
“Of course, do, my dear. And then when you’re ready, I’ll come and show you your room. Yours for as long as you like to stay,” she added with an affectionate smile. “Come, Nelson. Walk.”
With a bound the ridgeback was beside her, carrying his lead in his mouth, his tail waving in ecstatic rhythm. Lady Merrick said “Beautiful boy,” in the fatuous tones the most sensible of dog lovers occasionally lapse into, took his lead from him, and went ou
tside, leaving Alix to her mail.
The first letter, dated just before she had left England, was Bernard’s usual schoolboyish, affectionate scrawl. It brought him vividly to mind—stocky,
, blue-eyed, with a jubilant whoop of a laugh and a hug like a bear’s.
Darling Bernard, lovely to be together again, Alix thought nostalgically. I mustn’t stay long down here. I must be on my way to Salisbury. I can’t wait to see him again ...
The second letter was shorter, just a hasty note. It excused itself because they would be meeting again so soon.
The third made Alix’s heart trip and drove the blood from her cheeks.