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Authors: Mary Williams

Tags: #Literature & Fiction, #Genre Fiction, #Historical, #Romance, #Historical Fiction, #Historical Romance

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BOOK: The Velvet Glove
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However, following the fleeting confusion of doubts, the trivialities of final preparations and mounting tension heralding the enforced meeting ahead, the event itself once under way, went more easily than Kate had anticipated.

The dinner itself was excellently prepared, and served, at the long mahogany table glinting with glass and silver under crystal chandeliers, with Rick at the head and his wife facing him from the opposite end. The guests sat on either side, and Kate noticed with satisfaction that Linda Wade
’s cheeks shone slightly damp despite her liberal coating of rouge. Probably she had a poor skin beneath the make-up. Her shoulders and arms were too plump for her dimpled small hands, and her fair fussed hair was far too yellow to be natural. Nevertheless her eyes were very blue and must once have been striking. Now they were small, peering from tiny networked wrinkles. But wary – oh, yes. They were shrewd watchful eyes, Kate decided. Was she jealous? The thought was stimulating and gave power to her performance as hostess. Her innate ability to put on an act pushed all other considerations aside; she became graciousness personified, listening attentively to any remark made by the other woman – with just a suggestion of an encouraging half-smile on her tilted mouth. What hidden rivalry there might be between the two was admirably concealed, except perhaps to Rick whose eyes at intervals glanced at Kate enigmatically, but with a whimsical knowledge that didn’t escape her.

Still, on the whole, the evening was a success; outer politeness was never allowed to flag, even when the two men had retired to the smoking-room for a discussion of male topics and a brief business interval,
leaving the women, following a session of adjusting their toilet, to get to know each other – Rick’s phrase – in the drawing-room.


My dear!’ Linda said. ‘I’m so
delighted
at having the opportunity to meet my old friend’s new wife in her home at such an early date following the marriage. Most women envy you, of course, but at the wedding when I saw you looking so beautiful I almost envied Rick.’ She paused, then continued with a touch of acid ambiguity, ‘Not
entirely
, of course. Marriage is such a lottery, is it not? And, of course, you
are
very young. And Rick – well, naturally he’s already had quite a deal of experience in life – which makes him a connoisseur in his way—’


Of what, Mrs Wade?’ Kate interrupted pertly. ‘Are you referring to women?’


Good gracious, darling! What a question. As if I’d dream of sticking my neck out in such a way. I was thinking of values.’


I see.’


Of people, and things. You’ll have such a lot to discover – about matters in his life that are tremendously important to him.’


I’m aware of that.’


Oh, yes. I can well believe it,’ Linda said drily. ‘I’m sure you’re a very intelligent young woman.’

Not qu
ite knowing whether this observation was meant to be complimentary or otherwise, Kate changed the conversation into more impersonal channels, including theatrical gossip and plays currently being performed in London.


I understand you were once – an actress yourself, Mrs Wade?’ Kate ventured to ask at what she considered a tactful point.

Linda
’s eyes narrowed slightly; her voice was brittle bright, when she answered, ‘You understand perfectly correctly, my dear. I certainly was. But then’ – there was a short pause before she continued – ‘we women are all actresses at heart, are we not? Which is why we contrive so cleverly to enchant our men.’

Kate
’s tell-tale flush tinged her cheeks. She forced a little laugh and answered, ‘When we need to, I suppose, but thank goodness it isn’t always necessary.’


In youth, no. But as the years pass, believe me, when the first glamour of beauty is fading a clever brain is generally required to keep a certain type of man faithful.’


By a certain type of man you mean men like my husband, Mrs Wade?’ Kate retorted boldly. ‘Oh, I’m certainly not bothered about such problems at the moment. Please don’t worry about my future. Rick and I understand each other. And now’ – with acid sweetness – ‘your cup is empty. Will you have more coffee?’


Thank you.’

A highly charged frisson of anger seemed to emanate from the plump figure through the atmosphere. Kate sensed that for the moment, anyway, she had won in the subtle battle of feminine jealousies.

It was only later, when the guests had departed, and Kate was alone in the bedroom before Rick joined her, that her encounter with Mrs Wade fully registered. Obviously whether Linda’s former relationship with Ferris had been merely one of intimate friendship or something more serious, the ex-actress had no intention of abandoning what influence she still might have.

And from that moment Kate was fiercely resentful. Rick
’s life was hers now.
She
was mistress of Woodgate House, and did not intend to allow any other woman to have a say in their mutual existence. She might not love Rick, but he excited and fulfilled her, and one day, who knew? If he went into politics or was sufficiently successful in the number of newspapers and business ventures he had interests in, he might receive a knighthood. Then she would become Lady Ferris, and enjoy the triumph of facing Jon on an equal footing.

The picture acted like strong wine in her blood. Her eyes shone bright through the dark lashes, her cheeks had a rich peach glow from the rose-shaded lamplight. When Rick entered minutes later he was amazed once more, almost shocked by her beauty, and wonder stirred in him that she could really be his. This was an emotion he had so far managed to hide. Women, he
’d found, in his thirty-six years, were contradictory creatures, and could be capricious if allowed to become too sure of a man.

So that evening was like so many others of lovemaking with his young wife, holding no
expression of ardour in words – merely a deep sensuous coming together that left them at last at peace, though fleeting half-formed memories of Jon merged in Kate’s mind, fading eventually into sleep.

 

 

 

2

 

The first discordant note in the Ferris household occurred when Kate expressed a dislike of attending the Wentworth wedding.


It would really be so
embarrassing
,’ she told her husband. ‘With Aunt Blacksley being there – so drab and – and looking just what she is—’


The mother of the bride,’ Rick interrupted with what his wife should have detected as a dangerous edge to his voice.


By adoption,’ came the sharp correction. ‘No one knows who Cassie’s real mother was. And anyway the Wentworths are high church. Aunt Blacksley wouldn’t know how to act. Her husband was
Methodist
. A minister. There’s always ill-feeling between Free Church and anything veering towards Catholicism. And—’

Rick sighed.
‘For Heaven’s sake, Kate, be reasonable. We’re talking of a wedding ceremony that should unite the Barringtons with the Wentworths. And Mrs Blacksley is all the family Cassandra has.’


It isn’t only that – the religious difference,’ Kate persisted stubbornly. ‘It’s the church – that tiny chapel place. You know how I get claustrophobia in small places, and—’

Rick
’s eyebrows shot up. ‘I know nothing of the sort. It’s the first I’ve heard of it.’


Well I do. I’d feel stifled and miserable, and there’ll probably be an incense smell. That always makes me feel sick, and I know it would be better for Cass if I wasn’t there.’


Now, my love, you’re being quite ridiculous. It’s settled. We’re going. To refuse would be downright rude and it’s important to me to be thought well of in the district. So forget your doubts and qualms. Be a good girl and settle for something suitable and charming to wear, and look forward to the champagne and confetti and a happy day instead of glooming about having to take second place for once.’

Kate
’s eyes widened. She stared at him astonished. He had an expression on his face she’d never seen before – searching, almost grim as though for the first time he was reaching her most secret thoughts.


What do you mean? Second place?’ she asked, catching her breath slightly.


I’m sure I don’t have to explain; your own fancy for the Honourable Jon was clear enough at the time, if you remember. But that’s an episode we should both do well to forget. So no more arguing about the wedding. We’re
going
, that’s that.’

He
’s insufferable, Kate thought, quite insufferable. But she said no more. Her fingers were clenched tightly over her handkerchief, rolling it into a small ball, and her jaws were set.

He
’d won this time. In future, she determined, she’d have to be more subtle and play her part differently should any conflicting discussion arise between them.

It was the very first time she
’d realized that marriage to Rick Ferris was not going to be all plain sailing.

Still, she
’d been born a Barrington, and Barringtons generally succeeded in winning any challenge that arose. Her self-confidence gradually returned, and in the end her natural high spirits were revived by the contemplation of acquiring some eye-catching outfit that would evoke envy and admiration from the select congregation gathered to see the Honourable Jonathan Wentworth marry her cousin. She chose pale lavender silk for the occasion that accentuated her exquisite complexion, emphasizing the rich russet shades of her hair.

So, despite the brief dispute life assumed its original harmonious course at Woodgate, though Rick realized full well there might be occasional difficulties ahead.

It was in late January, the period shortly before the wedding that during one of Kate’s canters on Beth through the winding forest lanes, that she came upon Cassie leaning against a tree, with her sketching pad under her arm. She was wearing a loose blue cape, and the wind had blown pale strands of fair hair over her shoulders. She appeared absorbed, staring at a glitter of light through a tangle of branches shielding a darker mass of something beyond, to her left.

For the first time Kate, with a lurch of astonishment, recognized that Cassandra in these sur
roundings had a certain beauty – a fey-like delicacy of form – a grace akin to that of a young deer and other of the forest creatures. She had never really fitted in at Beechlands, and its social life, but here, somehow, she appeared so right. Had Jon recognized this subtle quality? Was there something similar in the two of them that had so instantly captured his imagination? Or was it just happiness that had caused the change in a rather colourless young girl to gentle loveliness? If so, then it was wrong of her, Kate to grudge her the new status of becoming Jon’s wife. She must be generous, she decided, and forgive her for stealing the man whom she’d so wanted for herself.

After all, nothing could make any difference now
. In the space of two weeks they would
both
be married women – Mrs Rick Ferris, and the Hon. Mrs Jon Wentworth.

They must be friends – not only for C
assie’s sake, but because she knew Rick wished it.

Cassandra turned as Kate reined and tethered her mount to the stump of a tree at
the side of the lane. Then she pushed through the undergrowth and approached her cousin.

Cassandra gave a little start, as though she
’d been woken sharply from a dream.


So I’ve found you,’ Kate remarked ineffectually. ‘This is your secret place!’


Secret? Well, it’s where I like to come for ideas and things. For my paintings. There’ll be orchids later, as well as bluebells wild, of course, but rare. Jon gave me a little book about them—’ she broke off vaguely. Something in Kate’s face – the way she stood, so completely still for a moment – a static shape against the pale light behind her was mildly disturbing to Cass.


Ah, yes. Jon. I’ve heard he’s a bit of a naturalist.’


He is. We like the same things,’ Cassandra stated with a sudden unexpected show of spirit. ‘And this place isn’t secret – anyone can come here, you know that. Or didn’t you know—?’ She turned, indicating the half-tumbled shape over the lane of a ruined cottage entangled in briars, elderberry and thorn, fifty yards or so away. ‘That was once part of a priory, then something tragic happened. Later an old woman lived there who had strange powers, and she—’


Oh, I know. I
know
,

Kate interrupted impatiently. ‘There are lots of stories and legends about this district, but they shouldn’t be taken as fact. True history’s often a very different matter.’


Yes. I suppose so.’


Anyway – have you been sketching it?’


Not today. Just thinking.’


About the wedding?’


Partly. You and Rick
are
coming, aren’t you?’


Naturally. But I don’t suppose we shall stay long at the reception. There’s going to be one, I suppose?’


Just for relations – that’s what Jon said, and the servants.’


And Aunt Blacksley, of course, with my parents?’

Cassandra sighed.
‘Why are you asking all these questions, Kate? You must have seen the invitation, or haven’t you?’

Kate shrugged.
‘Oh, I just glanced. But I do find celebrations – of
any
kind – rather boring. Of course’ – she tried to simulate interest and warmth into her voice – ‘it’ll be different with
you
, Cass – being my – sort of cousin. And getting married too – to Jon.’

Cass smiled, and the smile gave her sudden radiance.
‘Yes. And if it hadn’t been for you, and that wonderful dance we’d probably never have met at all.’

No, Kat
e thought, with a sudden desperate feeling of loss and anger, you wouldn’t. I was an idiot ever to agree taking you to that wretched birthday ball. It was Isobel’s fault – I’ll never forgive her, or you for the secret way you acted in stealing Jon.

Through this unexpected fresh spurt of jealousy it didn
’t occur to her that she herself had known Jonathan so very slightly, in fact hardly at all. Her expression had suddenly become hard and cold. But Cassandra didn’t notice.

The tracery of dancing shadows from the trees dimmed bitterness into a mere blue of a face under a shining mane of russet hair.

‘Would you like to see my latest paintings?’ Kate heard Cassandra saying in her light voice.


Where are they?’


Over there – in that little place – the ruin. I’ve sort of made it into a kind of studio. Jon helped me, of course. We call it the Tree Studio, because it’s half made of branches now, and there’s a beech tree at the back.’

Kate agreed automatically, and together they made their way across the path to the green thicket enclosing the tumbled building.

From the first it appeared to be no more than an overgrown tumbled hovel – a retreat for a wandering tramp perhaps and wild creatures seeking refuge from the elements. But a ray of light zig-zagged from inside, and when they’d pushed through the opening that had probably once been a door, a stream of early sunshine from a gothic-shaped window at the far end revealed an interior with a boarded floor – obviously recently installed – granite walls partially mended that had been thatched and were enclosed on the outside by the groping branches of sycamores and the spreading arms of the old beech tree. The remains of a fireplace were clearly in a state of being restored, and the holes in one rough wall were already filled in. A large tin of household paint stood in a corner facing a wooden bench and a cane chair. There was an oil stove and a stack of Cassandra’s paintings pushed into an alcove.


It will be quite different when it’s finished,’ Kate, in a daze, heard Cass saying. ‘There’s going to be a proper door, and that old stove won’t be here, because Jon says oil is dangerous. He doesn’t
really
like me coming alone here yet. I’m supposed to bring the dog with me anyway. But I just had a sudden longing, somehow, to be here quite alone for once. Funny, isn’t it, that you should appear? But I’m glad now, because I wanted you to know.’


Why
?’ Kate’s voice was sharp.


Well, we’re cousins, aren’t we? Oh, I know you’re not really interested in painting – not mine anyway. But we’ve done things together, and if ever you want to share it you can.’


As I don’t paint there wouldn’t be much point, would there? Still, I’m glad you’ve got your own retreat at last.’


Jon doesn’t call it that,’ Cassandra said with a shy half-smile. ‘Our Tree Studio –that’s what he’s named it.’


Quite apt,’ Kate remarked shortly. She felt Cassandra’s eyes on her questioningly, and wondered if she’d sensed – even slightly – the sudden sharp pain she felt – the quite irrational envy, because after all she was Mrs Ferris now – of picturing Jon making love to Cassie in that romantic, somehow unreal, setting.


Isn’t it rather a long way from Charnbrook to have a studio?’ she asked mechanically.


That won’t matter. And it’s not so far if you take the shortest cut. Anyhow, I’m learning to ride now, side saddle of course – I’ve a mare of my own in the stable at Charnbrook; and there’s always my bicycle.’


You
? On a horse? But you never used to like them. They frightened you.’


This one’s different. Gentle, not much more than a foal – and quite white. Her name’s Snowfire.’

Snowfire! Snowfire? the word echoed through Kate
’s brain tormentingly. And a gift from Jon. The picture evoked a fairytale quality about it of Cassandra riding through the forest like some legendary princess on a white palfrey to meet her lover.

Yet her voice was calm when she said,
‘You’re lucky, Cass. I hope you’ll be happy.’

And in a way this was true. Bitterness had died in Kate as quickly as it had flamed up; there was no point in fretting for something that never, now, could be hers. In any case she wasn
’t the fairytale type. But then, was Jon?

Brushing the question aside, she said abruptly,
‘I must get back. Rick’s returning from a London visit this morning, he may already be back at Woodgate. I want to be there when he arrives.’


But can’t you just have a proper look at my paintings?’


Another time. I know about your hideout now.’

Minutes later she was cantering back towards the village. She was unaware of the unshed tears brimming to her eyes until the
brushes of cool wind whipped their dampness to her cheeks. One hand rubbed them quickly away. Her lower lip tightened with resolve, and when she reached the red-brick mansion of her home her smile was brilliant as Rick came to meet her. His kiss was firm and warm on her mouth. She closed her eyes, briefly willing herself to forgetfulness through the dark tide of his rising passion.

BOOK: The Velvet Glove
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