Authors: Nancy Buckingham
Tags: #Gothic Romance
His name, I saw from the crisp white visiting card in my hand, was Stafford Darville. As I entered the drawing room, he turned from his stance by the window. I met his eyes with a sense of dismay, instantly aware of his antagonism. How was it possible for a total stranger to be so disapproving of me?
Undeniably, he was a good-looking man. Although very tall, it wasn’t merely his advantage of height that would set him apart in a roomful of men. He did a favor to his well-tailored clothes, not they to him. There was a lean vitality about him, about his features, a wide brow beneath hair that was dark and gleaming, curling slightly into his neck, high cheekbones, a firm, straight nose, and a thrusting jaw. But more than anything else it was his eyes I noticed. They were gray—a deep slate gray—chilling and severe, unsoftened by any hint of laughter lines.
Old Palfrey, the ever-correct butler, hovered in the doorway. With both Dr. and Mrs. Carlisle out of the house, he was dubious about the propriety of leaving me alone with this unknown caller. I dismissed Palfrey with a reassuring nod and braved myself. I found it curiously difficult to control my voice.
“Mr. Darville? I understand you wish to speak to me.”
“I do—if you are Miss Elinor Rosslyn.”
“Yes, I am she.” I sat upon the scrolled sofa and indicated a chair facing me. “Won’t you please be seated?”
With a flick of his coattails he accepted the seat and continued in the same inflexible voice. “You are the daughter of Dr. Charles and Mrs. Joanneira Rosslyn, who until they were killed six years ago resided near Bath in Somerset. Is that correct?”
“Yes, yes,” I said impatiently. “Please tell me why you are here, Mr. Darville.”
“I have come to inform you, Miss Rosslyn, of your grandfather’s death.”
I stared at him in bewilderment.
“But—but I haven’t a grandfather,” I stammered. “My father’s parents died many years ago, when he was still a young man. I never knew them.”
“I refer to your maternal grandfather, Miss Rosslyn.”
“There must be some mistake. My mother came from Portugal. She was Portuguese.”
The furrows of his brow creased into a perplexed frown. “Am I to understand that you are unaware of the existence of your mother’s family? Did she never speak to you of them?”
It was only now, faced with the direct question, that I realized how pitifully ignorant I was about my mother’s life and background before she met and married my father. Thinking back, I could see that even as a child I had sensed a certain reluctance on their part to talk about it. Should I, perhaps, have been more persistent?
How much did I know, in fact? Only the romantic story that had so captured my imagination as a little girl—the story of a newly qualified English doctor who while on holiday in Portugal had fallen victim to a sudden outbreak of cholera. There had been a young volunteer nurse at the convent hospital helping the overburdened nuns, and it was her devoted care, my father had always insisted, that saved his life. During the weeks of his illness they had fallen deeply in love, and when he was finally well enough to travel home to England, my mother had accompanied him.
Faltering, I tried to offer an explanation to this tall, dark man who confronted me with such marked disapprobation. “I have always supposed—it seemed logical to suppose—that my mother had no relatives living. She never referred to them, you see, except in a way that suggested they were long since dead.
“Perhaps that is not, after all, so surprising,” he said dryly. “Your mother probably thought it was the most prudent course to adopt ... in the circumstances.”
“What do you mean?” I demanded. “What circumstances?”
He hesitated, fingering the diamond pin that sparkled in his gray silk cravat. “As I understand it, Miss Rosslyn, you were fifteen years of age when your parents died. Yet you ask me to believe that in all those fifteen years you were so lacking in natural curiosity that you never asked your mother to tell you about her own early life?”
I felt driven into a defensive position. “Please try to understand, Mr. Darville. My mother often spoke to me of Portugal—spoke of it with great fondness and affection. But she never mentioned the existence of any family. I was an only child. I had my parents, I had my home. That was my whole world. This other land she told me about seemed so far away, so different from my own life in an English village, so exotic that it was more like a place in a storybook.”
“Then I suggest you let it remain so, Miss Rosslyn. That would be the wisest thing.”
“But how can I, now that you’ve told me I have relatives in Portugal? I want to know everything there is to know about them. Most of all, I want to know the reason for all this mystery.”
He seemed curiously reluctant to tell me, but after a moment’s hesitation he nodded his head. “Very well, I’ll do my best to explain. Though I can only tell you what little I know myself. You see, your mother married your father against the express wishes of her parents. The rights or wrongs of the case are not for me to judge, but her defiant attitude and her stubborn refusal to make any move toward a reconciliation resulted in a complete rift between them. Since then there had never been any communication, and your mother was disowned by her family—a just punishment, they believed, for making an unsuitable marriage.”
“But that is grossly unfair,” I protested hotly. “No two people could have been happier.”
It was true. My parents had remained deeply and steadfastly in love, right up to the day when they had tragically lost their lives in a train disaster. The atmosphere of my childhood home in Somerset had been one of warm devotion, of true loving harmony. I could recall occasions, however, when my mother would break off from whatever she was doing and grow pensive and withdrawn, as though her thoughts had taken her to some far distant place. Presently, she would catch my puzzled gaze and give me one of her quick, warm smiles.
It was at such times, I realized now, that Mama would start talking to me about her native country—of a sundrenched landscape where lemons and oranges grew almost wild, where grapevines flourished on the terraced slopes and the whole village would turn out to help at vintage time, with much singing and dancing and feasting. I would listen enthralled.
I quickly found myself understanding my mother when she spoke to me in Portuguese and grew to be able to answer her in the same tongue. But with a child’s intuitive half-knowledge of the adult world, I never spoke a word of Portuguese in my father’s presence. He had wanted me to be wholly English. He had wanted my mother to put aside memories of her homeland and think of herself as an Englishwoman. I felt certain, since he was the kindest and most considerate of men, that Papa wished this not for his own sake but for hers and mine.
Yet, is it ever possible to ignore the strangely evocative power of the blood that flows in one’s veins? Was it my Portuguese blood, I wondered, that prevented me from finding contentment in my present life, that gave me a curious sense of sadness, an indefinable longing for I didn’t quite know what?
“Please go on, Mr. Darville,” I prompted. ‘Tell me about my mother’s family.”
“As you wish. Miss Rosslyn. Your grandfather was the sixth Conde da Milaveira.”
interrupted. “That means count, doesn’t it? Was my grandfather really a count?”
Stafford Darville gave me a scathing look from under his dark brows. “Don’t be too impressed, Miss Rosslyn. It means very little, you will discover, that your grandfather was titled.”
I bit my lip, vexed that I had presented him with a chance to snub me. In as cool a voice as I could muster, I said, “I was surprised because for some reason I have always imagined that my mother’s people were farmers.”
A faint smile touched his lips. “You might say that—but farmers on an extensive scale. In fact, the Milaveira demesne covers many thousands of hectares, mainly vineyards, between Cintra and the coast, though I hasten to warn you that the entire property is heavily mortgaged. It was at his Cintra home, the Quinta dos Castanheiros—there is a town house also, in Lisbon—that your grandfather died of pleurisy two months ago, on February the eleventh. His widow— your grandmother—naturally has an entitlement to reside at either of the family homes for the rest of her days, but the estates and properties pass to the offspring. There is a son by his first wife, Affonso da Milaveira, who is the new
You, Miss Rosslyn, inherit what would have been your mother’s portion if she had still been alive—not by any wish of her parents, I might add, but according to Portuguese law. However,” he went on hurriedly before I could interrupt, “I beg you not to get any grandiose ideas. The Milaveira estate, impressive though it may sound to you, is virtually worthless. When all the debts have been settled, there will hardly be a penny left for distribution to the heirs.”
“I see.” In fact, though, I was too stunned and bewildered to take it all in. “Are you a lawyer, Mr. Darville?”
“By no means. I am a wine shipper.”
“Oh yes, I thought the name sounded vaguely familiar. Darville’s Wines.”
“Exactly so,” he agreed. ‘The Darvilles have had a close association with the Milaveiras for several generations—we buy and ship most of the wine they produce. However, that’s beside the point. The reason I am involved in this matter, Miss Rosslyn, is that I happened to be coming to England on business and would therefore be conveniently on the spot. You see, the Milaveira lawyer was unable to establish whether your mother was still alive, and there was no record of an English address among the family papers. Your grandmother maintained that her daughter was dead and strongly persisted in her view that it was unnecessary for any search to be made. Without definite proof, however, the legal requirements could not be satisfied. So to try and expedite matters the lawyer asked me if I would have an investigation made while I was in London. I did so and found that Joanneira Rosslyn died six years ago. But I learned that she had left a daughter, and my inquiries have led me to you.” He rose to his feet. “My task is now completed, so I will take my leave of you. Naturally, you will receive official intimation of the position in due course, but I do want to stress that there is nothing in this news to change your present mode of life in any way. I understand that these people you are living with, Dr. and Mrs. Carlisle, were old friends of your parents. I’ve no doubt it is a very satisfactory arrangement.”
“Yes indeed,” I agreed readily. “They have been extremely good to me.” I owed the Carlisles an immense debt of gratitude. When I was suddenly orphaned at the age of fifteen, they had generously extended me their care and protection. In my grief this elegant home on Harley Street had seemed a haven of security that I could not imagine myself ever wanting to leave. But now, six years later, I was beginning to feel stifled here. Compared with the freedom of the village life I’d known in Somerset, where my father had his medical practice, the cushioned comfort of the Carlisles’ home was almost too protective, too sheltered.
From the very beginning I had been treated like a daughter of the household, yet in one respect not like a daughter. Lately I’d become distressingly aware that Dr. and Mrs. Carlisle were hoping I would one day marry their son, Oliver, who was at present a junior resident at Guy’s Hospital. In due course, they anticipated, Oliver would step into his father’s shoes, and I into his mother’s. My task, like Mildred Carlisle’s, would be to play the part of loyal wife and helpmeet to a fashionable London physician, to entertain the wealthy and prominent people who were his patients, to sit on various charitable committees, and in every way to reflect her husband’s success. I had the greatest affection for Mrs. Carlisle, who was good and kind and thoroughly worthy, but her role in life was not a role I could happily adopt myself. Perhaps, if I had ever looked upon Oliver with other than sisterly feelings, I might have thought differently, but I had never been in the least in love with him, and I was sure I never could be.
“Please, Mr. Darville,” I begged, rising to my feet to face him. “Before you go, will you tell me more about my grandmother?”
Again he hesitated, and I was conscious of his unwillingness. Then he lifted his shoulders in a gesture that conceded I had a right to some sort of answer. “Dona Amalia is a remarkable old lady,” he said. “She has great strength of character and an intelligent, lively mind. But like many elderly people she has her blind spots and refuses to accept facts. She clings, for example, to an absurd belief that life can continue at the
in the same grand style she has always known.” He paused, then added slowly, ‘Perhaps, to save her from disillusion, it is just as well that Dona Amalia hasn’t much longer to live.”
“Not long to live,” I echoed in dismay. “You mean because she is now so old? Or is my grandmother ill?”
He nodded. “She suffers from some grave internal disorder, and the doctor gives her only a few more months. There is no hope she’ll live longer than that, he says.”