The Autumn Of The Witch
The Autumn Of The Witch
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I’ve always wanted to write—which is not to say I’ve always wanted to be a professional writer. On the contrary, for years I only wrote for my own pleasure and it wasn’t until my husband suggested sending one of my stories to a publisher that we put several publishers’ names into a hat and pulled one out. The rest, as they say, is history. And now, one hundred and sixty-two books later, I’m literally—excuse the pun—staggered by what’s happened.
I had written all through my infant and junior years and on into my teens, the stories changing from children’s adventures to torrid gypsy passions. My mother used to gather these manuscripts up from time to time, when my bedroom became too untidy, and dispose of them! In those days, I used not to finish any of the stories and Caroline, my first published novel, was the first I’d ever completed. I was newly married then and my daughter was just a baby, and it was quite a job juggling my household chores and scribbling away in exercise books every chance I got. Not very professional, as you can imagine, but that’s the way it was.
These days, I have a bit more time to devote to my work, but that first love of writing has never changed. I can’t imagine not having a current book on the typewriter—yes, it’s my husband who transcribes everything on to the computer. He’s my partner in both life and work and I depend on his good sense more than I care to admit.
We have two grown-up children, a son and a daughter, and two almost grown-up grandchildren, Abi and Ben. My e-mail address is and I’d be happy to hear from any of my wonderful readers.
The Autumn of the Witch Anne Mather
Table of Contents
HIGH above the black rocks of the Baia del Fortezzo on the western coast of Sicily stood the Castello di Strega. Built more than a hundred years ago, its walls weathered by the elements of countless seasons, it possessed the kind of grim majesty which commanded respect, and Pietro Bastinado thought it a fitting background for its owner, Santino Ventura. The Ventura family had owned this stretch of the island for generations, land which Pietro knew only too well had been tom by savagery and blood feud, land which knew no authority but its own.
Below the castello terraces of vines and orchards of almond, fig and lemon trees led down to a plain which would have been arid had it not been for the artificial channels which irrigated it, tended lovingly by the Venturas’ workers whose livelihood it represented. Away to the west in complete contrast stretched the sun-warmed waters of the Mediterranean which provided a blessed escape from the sweated labour in the fields. It was a land of contrasts, thought Pietro as he turned the Lancia on to the steep drive up to the castello. A land of great wealth and abject poverty, of fertile huertas and barren wasteland, of seething, pulsating humanity and splendid isolation. A land which for centuries had written its own laws and still attempted to do so.
Pietro’s employer, Santino Ventura, who was also his brother-in-law, was perhaps the wealthiest man on the island. He was not, however, dependent on the precarious success of his crops for his prosperity. Early in life he had learned that affluence did not appear, it might be sought, and breaking the traditions of years he had widened his horizons and moved into the world of high finance. Using his excellent brain and inbred sense of cunning, he had speculated profitably, and he had gained a reputation in business circles of being completely ruthless, sentiment never being allowed to colour his judgment. He was a hard man, even his most loyal peasant would never have attempted to deny that, a man of extreme ideals and his enemies might say selfish arrogance, yet for all that Pietro knew that he was a man who cared passionately for his people, despising the system he used so expertly to his own ends. His only weakness, if it could be classed as such, was his small daughter Lucia whose mother, Pietro’s sister, had died giving her birth.
Now Pietro brought the sleek sports car to a halt at the foot of the steps which led up to the heavy door of the castello, and sliding out shed the driving gloves he had been wearing. Then he ran lightly up the steps and thrust open the door, entering the high-ceilinged hall of the building. In recent years many improvements had been made to the castello, and now the hall was terrazzo-tiled and the curving staircase was polished marble. The walls were intricately sculpted in wood and the burnish of years was upon them. High overhead a single chandelier was suspended and at night it gleamed from a thousand prisms. A magnificent background indeed, he thought, for a man who was master of his own destiny, and the destinies of his people.
An elderly woman, dressed entirely in black in the manner of her ancestors, came through a door below the curving staircase and approached him. This was Sophia Vascente, Santino’s housekeeper.
‘Good morning, Sophia.’ Pietro spoke in their own language. ‘Are you well? It seems almost cool outside today.’
‘It is early yet, signore,’ observed Sophia dourly. ‘You have come to see the padrone?’
Pietro smiled goodnaturedly. ‘It is not in order for me to do so?’ he inquired lightly.
‘The padrone is not yet up, signore,’ replied Sophia. ‘Do you wish for some coffee?’
Pietro gave a wry grimace. ‘Yes, I wish for some coffee,’ he answered, nodding. ‘Dare I ask if the padrone has had breakfast?’
A faint smile touched Sophia’s lips, albeit unwillingly. ‘It has been taken up to him, signore. No doubt he will have heard your arrival and will be down presently.’
Pietro raised his dark eyebrows. ‘Do I sense a reproof in your voice, Sophia?’
Sophia put her hands on her hips. ‘The padrone was working very late last night, signore. He is tired.’
Pietro sighed. ‘Well, what I have to tell him will waken him up. I’ll be in the study. Will you bring the coffee there?’
‘Yes, signore.’ Sophia stiffened her shoulders and accepting the veiled command in Pietro’s tones moved away.
Pietro walked swiftly across the cool hall to the leather padded door of Santino’s study. This was where his employer worked when he was at the castello, and adjoining it was another room which Pietro had exclusively for his own use. There were offices, too, in Palermo, but most of Santino’s business took him abroad, to Rome or Paris or New York, and sometimes to London. He sat on the boards of several European companies and his opinion was frequently sought when decisions had to be made. His business colleagues recognized in him the power to abjure any kind of emotionalism or sentiment in his reasoning and in consequence his judgments were razor-sharp and incisive. But for all that Pietro knew that part of their respect was grounded in fear and Santino possessed considerable influence because of this.
Sophia brought in the tray of coffee and placed it on the desk. ‘Will that be all, signore?’ she asked politely.
Pietro looked up from some papers he had been studying and frowned. ‘What? Oh – oh, yes, thank you, Sophia.’ He inclined his head coolly and with a slight tightening of her lips Sophia left him. He was in the process of drinking his second cup of coffee when his employer entered the room.
Santino Ventura was a man in his late thirties whose hard, slightly cruel features bore witness of the experiences life had written there. His hair was thick and black and sideburns darkened his already tanned jawline. Taller than the average Italian, he had broad muscular shoulders tapering to narrow hips, and there was not an ounce of spare flesh on his lean frame. Possessing none of the flaccid good looks of his race, he was nevertheless a man whom women found immensely attractive, for there was a kind of animal magnetism about the dark depths of his eyes and the full sensuality of his lower lip. However, he seldom bothered with women. Since Sancia’s death, he had lived a singularly unattached existence, caring little for the kind of social life he could have enjoyed. He seemed content to spend what free time he had with Lucia, for she was a lonely child and in Pietro’s opinion needed a woman to care for her.
Now Santino walked with lithe easy grace into the room, coming across to his assistant and shaking hands with him warmly. ‘Well, Pietro?’ he said questioningly. ‘You are indeed an early riser. Do I take it your news is good, or excessively bad?’
Pietro swallowed the remainder of his coffee hastily, replacing his cup in its saucer. ‘I flew back from London last night, but as the plane was forced to land in Zurich with engine trouble it was the early hours before we reached Palermo,’ he explained. Flexing his muscles tiredly, he went on: ‘There didn’t seem much point in going to bed after that.’
‘I see.’ Santino extracted a thick cigar from a box on his desk and lit it thoughtfully. ‘And what about W.A.A.? Did you do it?’
Pietro gave a reluctant smile. ‘You don’t waste much time on formalities, do you?’ he queried, with the familiarity of years. ‘But if you mean that business over the shares, yes, I did it.’
‘Good!’ Santino Ventura looked positively delighted. ‘I knew I could rely on you, Pietro. Was it easy?’
Pietro grimaced and reached for the coffee pot again. ‘I don’t like that kind of an assignment, Santino,’ he said grimly.
Santino shrugged, flinging himself into the soft swinging leather chair behind his desk, resting one leg casually over an arm. He drew deeply on his cigar, obviously deep in thought, and Pietro took the opportunity to help himself to more coffee. Then he became aware that Santino’s eyes were upon him again, and he said: ‘The shares are divided almost equally between Mrs. McMaster and Evelyn Lacey, McMaster’s sister.’
‘And?’ Santino prompted.
‘Jennifer McMaster is up to her eyes in debt. The Lacey woman; I’m not so sure.’
‘But I am!’ Santino’s tones brooked no argument. He slid his leg off the arm of his chair and leaning forward flicked through some papers on his desk. ‘There’s the contract. Have you read it?’
‘Yes. It’s pretty rough.’
Santino got to his feet. ‘McMaster’s made his own mistakes. I can’t be held responsible for the failure of the firm’s managing director.’ He chewed on his cigar irritably. ‘You know perfectly well I wanted a straight merger. If he hasn’t the sense to play along, then it’s his own funeral.’
Pietro sighed. He knew Santino was right. Western Amalgamated Airlines had been losing money for the past three years. They were on a downhill slope and couldn’t afford to be so awkward. Even so, McMaster himself had not yet grasped the calibre of the man he was dealing with. Santino Ventura had broken stronger men than he.
‘So now—’ Santino looked at Pietro thoughtfully, ‘I think I will take it from here, as you find the subject so distasteful.’
Pietro flushed. ‘I didn’t say that.’
‘I know. But you don’t like my methods in this instance, and I need a man here who isn’t afraid of the consequences.’
Pietro shook his head helplessly. ‘I can do it.’
Santino studied him with understanding eyes. ‘I know it. But I’ll still take over. You can come with me if you like. It may prove edifying yet.’
‘What do you intend to do?’
Santino frowned. ‘I want that airline. It’s not a big concern, it’s not an important concern even, but I need its connections.’ He half smiled. ‘However, McMaster doesn’t know that, unless you’ve told him, so I think in this instance we can afford to play it cool.’
Pietro raked a hand through his hair, looking rather young and innocent suddenly. ‘I don’t understand. What do you intend to do?’
Santino regarded him with his grave dark eyes. ‘Why, draw out of the deal, of course.’
Pietro stiffened. ‘You mean you intend to bankrupt him?’
Santino gave an expressive gesture. ‘Oh, no, not that. Frighten him a little, that’s all. He’s caused us enough trouble. He’s wasted us enough time, don’t you think? Don’t you think he deserves a little trouble of his own?’
‘But, Santino, you’re already planning to take him over, with or without his consent. Isn’t that enough?’
Santino tugged absently at the silken cords which laced the front of the cream silk shirt he was wearing. ‘This is a game, Pietro, nothing more. We will not cheat him over the price. In fact, I think I am being overly generous. I could destroy him if I wanted.’
Pietro sighed. ‘But; why should you?’
‘Exactly. There are so many more interesting targets, are there not?’ Santino gave a quirk of his eyebrows. ‘Come. You think I am despicable. So we will leave it for now, and go and see Lucia. Yes?’
Pietro shook his head helplessly. ‘You amaze me, Santino. One minute you are considering the destruction of a man who has attempted to thwart you in business, and the next you expect me to accept you as Lucia’s loving father. The transition is too much!’
Santino smiled now, the relaxation of his features dispelling the deep lines that etched his eyes and mouth. ‘What would you have me do, Pietro? Allow McMaster to waste me literally millions of lire? I am not so careless of the organization’s money. I can only assume that the enchanting Mrs. McMaster is responsible for this softening of your attitudes.’
Pietro coloured hotly. ‘I hardly know the woman,’ he denied swiftly. ‘Your knowledge of her is much greater than mine.’
‘Ah, yes, but you must admit she is considerably younger than her husband, and perhaps deserves a – shall we say – more active man?’
Pietro’s colour deepened. ‘I know nothing about that. But in any case, she must have realized McMaster’s age when she married him. She is his second wife, after all.’
‘Is she?’ Santino listened with interest. ‘And how did you learn this? From her?’
‘No.’ Pietro was brief. ‘Fron – from McMaster’s daughter, by his first marriage.’
‘I begin to see.’ Santino’s eyebrows lifted. ‘It is not this Jennifer McMaster who causes you so much soul-searching, but the daughter, McMaster’s daughter …’
Pietro gave an impatient shrug. ‘Oh, let’s change the subject, Santino. I am not interested in McMaster or his daughter!’
Santino gave a gesture of dismissal respecting Pietro’s appeal, but he was quite aware that to some extent his assistant’s involvement with the McMaster family was not wholly impersonal.
Lucia Ventura was a delightful child. At four years of age she was small and slender and extremely feminine. Her colouring matched that of her father, but her hair was long and luxuriant and invariably tied with a satin ribbon. Her eyes were enormous in her small face and her features, while resembling Santino’s, had none of the severity and all of the charm. She was the one being in his eyes who could do no wrong and yet she had not been spoiled. On the contrary, Pietro considered her a rather lonely child, relying constantly on the company of the members of Santino’s staff. Santino was away a lot and it was difficult to keep anyone youthful in a household so remote from the rest of the island, and consequently her companions were usually elderly women who stayed for a while and then returned to their families. It was unfortunate that her mother had died, for Sancia Ventura had loved the isolation.
Lucia was in the nursery with her present companion, Maria Vitali, and when her father opened the door her eyes darted to his with great excitement. Then she left what she was doing to fling herself across the room and into his arms.
Santino caught her up in his strong arms, swinging her high into the air before allowing her to fall against his chest where she wound her arms around his neck and hugged him.
‘Hey, Lucia,’ he exclaimed, disentangling her arms from his neck goodhumouredly, ‘your Uncle Pietro is here. Do you have nothing to say to him?’
Lucia lifted her head from her father’s shoulder and her eyes twinkled at Pietro. ‘Hello, Uncle Pietro,’ she said smilingly. ‘Have you come to stay?’
Pietro glanced wryly at Santino. ‘For a little while,’ he conceded gently. ‘But you are looking particularly pretty today, Lucia. Is that a new dress?’
Lucia glanced down at the printed nylon. ‘Maria made it for me,’ she said, looking across at the elderly nursemaid. ‘Did you not, Maria?’
Maria who had risen to her feet at their entrance stood with folded hands, smiling benevolently, and Santino gave her a brief nod indicating that she should be seated again. Then he said: ‘And your lessons, Lucia? You have been learning your numbers and your letters?’
Lucia wrinkled her nose. ‘Yes, Papa,’ she said reluctantly.
Santino frowned at her crumpled face. ‘Is that true, Lucia?’
Lucia pressed her lips together. ‘But it is so difficult,’ she exclaimed. ‘I cannot make these letters.’
Pietro glanced at his brother-in-law. ‘Surely she is too young for a formal education, Santino,’ he commented swiftly.
Santino shrugged his broad shoulders. ‘They are not formal lessons, Pietro. They are simple little exercises for simple little minds. My daughter should not find them difficult.’
Pietro shook his head. ‘And Maria is teaching her?’
‘Let us say that when I am away Maria supervises her,’ said Santino carefully. ‘Oh, come, Pietro! Do not look so serious. It is not important. Lucia needs something to occupy her brain. She is an intelligent child. Children of her age attend school in England.’
Pietro sighed. ‘Nevertheless, Maria is not qualified to teach her.’ He chewed at his lower lip. ‘If only Sancia—’
Santino’s eyes darkened. ‘We will not discuss Sancia here, Pietro,’ he said, and Pietro’s eyes fell before the command in his.
Lucia who had listened to this interchange with some concern, now said: ‘Can I give up my lessons today – now that Uncle Pietro is here?’
Santino’s face softened. ‘Of course, Lucia,’ he said, nodding firmly. ‘I tell you what – we will all go out for the day together. You and I and Uncle Pietro! How is that?’
‘Oh, Papa!’ Lucia’s face beamed and Pietro glanced in amazement at his employer.
‘But – McMaster—’ he began, and Santino smiled mockingly at him.
‘Who is McMaster?’ he questioned lightly. ‘Like Lucia, I am putting aside my problems for today. Come, Pietro! Do you not find the prospect of taking out my yacht appealing on such a beautiful morning?’
Pietro relaxed. ‘Of course. I can think of nothing more delightful.’
‘Good. Then we will ask Sophia to make us some lunch and put it in a picnic hamper and we will go. Yes?’ He looked at Lucia smilingly.
‘Oh, yes, Papa!’
It was not until late afternoon when the yacht lay idling out in the bay that Santino spoke again of the McMaster deal. With Lucia wearing her harness, which was secured to the central body of the vessel, pottering about happily with buckets of water, the two men stretched out lazily on the engine housing.
‘Tell me,’ said Santino, sliding his dark glasses down his nose, ‘what would you do with McMaster?’
Pietro rolled on to his stomach and reached for his cigarettes. He hesitated a minute, lighting a cigarette with thoughtful deliberation. Then he said: ‘I honestly don’t know.’
Santino frowned. ‘Consider the facts, Pietro. This man has raised money on the strength of this proposed merger and now he thinks he can call the tune.’
‘McMaster’s is an old established concern,’ Pietro endeavoured to explain. ‘He’s a man who believes inherently in standing alone.’
Santino sat up abruptly, wrenching off his dark glasses impatiently. ‘And yet he has not the business acumen to do so!’
‘No, I know.’
‘Years ago he must have seen this coming.’
‘I know.’ Pietro moved uncomfortably. ‘Even so, I sometimes think it is a pity that the little man can no longer survive—’
Santino uttered an exclamation. ‘Pietro, you’re mad! You know perfectly well that the reason W.A.A. is failing is because it’s such a small concern. It hasn’t the assets to buy in bulk and cut its costs. No one – but no one – intended that McMaster should be put out of business. This is his doing and his alone!’
‘I know, I know.’ Pietro raked a hand through his hair. ‘I know you’re right, all my instincts tell me so. Just take no notice of me.’
Santino regarded him almost compassionately. ‘There are times, my friend, when all of us experience a feeling of distaste for what we are doing. But when this happens, we must remember that in our position McMaster would not hesitate to crush us if he could. That is the way of the world. It took me some time to learn it too, and you are young yet, Pietro. You must learn to suppress weakness, for that is what it is.’
Pietro sighed. ‘I suppose you are right. But sometimes it frightens me.’ He turned his attention to Lucia, watching her as she lay on her stomach, dipping her hand over the side of the yacht to fill her bucket with water. Then he said, almost absently:. ‘Tell me something, Santino. Have you never thought of marrying again?’
Santino was taken unawares and for a moment he did not reply. But when he did he was curt and uncompromising. ‘No!’
Pietro frowned now. ‘Why not? It’s over four years since Lucia’s mother died. And she needs – someone – a woman—’
Santino’s expression hardened and Pietro knew he had said too much. ‘Lucia has me, and she has Maria. That is enough.’
Pietro shook his head, unable to prevent himself from disagreeing for once. ‘Maria is old, Santino. And you’re away such a lot—’
‘Pietro, I know you mean well. You are my brother-in-law and I think my friend. But in this there is nothing more to say. I loved Sancia, and I was distraught when she died giving birth to our daughter. Now I need no woman about the house, no companion for my future years. If my animal appetites require assuagement there is always Palermo. What more do I need?’
‘But there is still Lucia,’ Pietro persisted. ‘As she grows older, will you be able to share with her all the things a mother would share with her daughter? Will you be able to teach her the ways of a woman?’
‘You are becoming increasingly boring, Pietro,’ Santino grew impatient, his face hardening into the grim lines Pietro knew so well. ‘First you are concerned about McMaster – now it is Lucia! Are you becoming womanish yourself, Pietro? That is the question you should be asking yourself!’ He snapped his fingers. ‘I think you should look to your own affairs and leave me to mine!’
Pietro coloured. Santino was always capable of reducing him to the stature of a schoolboy and he had long learned that his brother-in-law would accept advice from no one, least of all someone like himself. With a sigh, he turned on to his back and drawing deeply on his cigarette he gazed into the deep blue arc of sky overhead. As his eyes flickered lower he saw the stark walls of the castello like some bleak fortress outlined against the skyline, and he felt an unwilling stirring of pride. The name of the castello was apt, he thought, the Castello di Strega, the castle of the witch, and its master a man who had the pride of il diabolo, the devil himself …
AS Stephanie came down the stairs she could hear them arguing. They were in the library and her stepmother’s voice, inherent of her theatrical training, carried easily to the girl as she stood silently gripping the banister rail. The deeper, more resonant tones of her father were raised in protest, but Stephanie knew that Jennifer would eventually wear him down by sheer persistence. She sighed and descended the rest of the stairs, halting uncertainly in the hall, wondering what they were arguing about now. They always seemed to be arguing these days and although Stephanie knew that her father’s temper was shortened by his anxieties over the company that didn’t altogether account for the situation.
She sighed and crossed the panelled hall to the lounge. Afternoon sunlight filtered through venetian blinds on to the warm polished mahogany of the china cabinet which had been her mother’s, and dappled the tapestry-covered chairs and settee. It was a room which had changed little over the years since her childhood even though from time to time Jennifer changed the curtains, splashed new rugs and cushions about, and begged her husband to get rid of the three-piece suite. But in this Robert McMaster was adamant, the room retained the character of his first wife; and so the rest of the house was rife with Swedish wood and glass, but the lounge remained the same.
Now Stephanie walked to the wide windows which overlooked the sweep of lawn at the back of the house and hoped desperately that Allan would arrive soon and take her away from the sound of their voices.
Allan Priestley was a pilot working for her father’s airline. He was an attractive young man in his middle twenties, and they had been going about together for almost a year, since Stephanie’s eighteenth birthday party, in fact. Stephanie liked him tremendously and she knew that they were gradually drifting into a situation where he would ask her to marry him. It was already an accepted thing among their friends that they were always asked places together. Allan earned a good salary and Stephanie was quite prepared to work for a while after their marriage. She enjoyed working in the children’s ward of a psychiatric hospital and she did not want to give it up without reason. Besides, it was an accepted arrangement these days for a young wife to have employment and certainly there would not be enough to do about the house to interest her until they had a family of their own. She sighed. Wasn’t she being a little precipitate thinking like this? She was only eighteen when all was said and done and she wondered whether if her mother had still been alive she would have contemplated leaving home so soon. She turned away from the window and caught a glimpse of herself in the framed oval mirror above the fireplace. Was that troubled countenance really hers? Why did she, like her father, allow Jennifer to get under her skin? She wasn’t afraid of the woman, after all. It was simply that her attitude was such that unless one wanted a continual state of contention one avoided open confrontation.
With a deliberately firm shake of her shoulders, Stephanie regarded her image critically. The trouser suit which at first had seemed a little too modem looked rather attractive now, and as it was a cold September afternoon the trimming of fur at the collar and cuffs and around the bottoms of the trousers looked just right. She left her hair loose, and it caught on the fur collar as she moved her head, falling in silky tendrils about her face. Its tawny brilliance was startling against the olive green suiting and yet it blended with the amber fur trimming. She wore little make-up, accentuating only the strange liquid chartreuse of her eyes, and in consequence they were the first thing anyone noticed. She was not beautiful, she knew that, and yet there was something more than mere good looks in her small face. She had a tantalizing allure that denied all formal designation. Maybe it was the slight tilt of her eyes at the corners, or maybe it was the thick luxuriant softness of her hair, or even the gentle fullness of the curves of her body that showed none of the angular lines of a model. Or perhaps it was simply the invariably bubbling personality that reached out and enveloped her admirers. In any event, she had never found any shortage of male admirers and in consequence she knew quite a lot about the opposite sex.
The doorbell suddenly pealed and she started. She must have been so wrapped up in her own thoughts she had not heard the sound of Allan’s car. Leaving the lounge, she walked out into the hall just as her stepmother came out of the library. Jennifer regarded her with unveiled mockery, raising her eyebrows critically.
‘Well, well,’ she remarked sardonically. ‘That’s new, isn’t it? I haven’t seen that – outfit – before, have I?’
The deliberate hesitation before the word outfit was not lost on Stephanie, but she refused to be drawn. Instead, she said: ‘No, you haven’t seen it. I just bought it last week. Out of my salary!’
She had the pleasure of seeing Jennifer’s lips tighten angrily, and she felt a momentary twinge of conscience. It was a moot point that her father had ordered Jennifer not to run up any more bills on clothes for the time being unless she could pay for them herself. The older woman was extravagant to a degree and this adjuration had not been taken lightly.
Stephanie saw Miller, the maid, coming to answer the door and waved her away and went to answer the door herself. Allan stood on the threshold and his eyes darkened admiringly as they surveyed her trim appearance. Then he smiled warmly at her before stepping past her into the hall where Jennifer still stood draped against the banister watching them.
‘Well, Allan,’ drawled Jennifer. ‘How are you?’
‘I’m fine, thank you, Mrs. McMaster. You’re looking well.’
‘Am I?’ Jennifer heaved a sigh. ‘I feel positively drained.’
‘Oh!’ Allan glanced inquiringly at Stephanie, but she turned away abruptly, going to the hall closet to get her gloves.
‘Yes,’ Jennifer went on, determinedly retaining his attention. ‘Robert’s having one of his regular purges and at the moment I’m being subjected to his strictures!’
‘I – see.’ Allan looked uncomfortable. ‘It’s a jolly cold afternoon, isn’t it?’
‘Is it?’ Jennifer moved impatiently. ‘I hadn’t noticed.’
Stephanie came back at that moment. ‘I’m ready,’ she said, looked purposefully at Allan, and he nodded. ‘Okay, let’s go,’ he said, and with a polite smile at Jennifer they both went out.
Allan’s Triumph sports car stood outside with the hood up, and he helped Stephanie inside before walking round to get in beside her. The powerful little car shot away, churning up the gravel on the drive, and Stephanie lay back and relaxed. Allan glanced her way understandingly, and said: ‘Jennifer getting up your back again?’
Stephanie sighed. ‘That’s the understatement of the year. Oh, Allan, I just wish there was something I could do to stop that woman from killing my father!’ There was a fierce determination in her voice and Allan shook his head helplessly.
‘Look,’ he said, ‘this business with Ventura is getting everyone down. Once everything is settled, one way or the other, things will sort themselves out, you’ll see.’
Stephanie grimaced. ‘I wish I was as certain,’ she said glumly. ‘Sometimes I wonder whether things will ever sort themselves out again.’
‘That’s a pretty defeatist attitude!’ exclaimed Allan. ‘Your father knows that sooner or later he’s got to accept Ventura’s offer.’
Stephanie looked mutinously at him. ‘Does he?’ She shook her head. ‘He’ll hang on to the business as long as he possibly can. I know him better than you do and I know it would kill him if he were thrust aside by Ventura’s management. He’s an active man, Allan, he’s been active all his life. You can’t throw a man like that on the stockpile!’
‘Nobody’s suggesting you should. This deal with Ventura was to be a merger. Your father would retain control. At least that’s how I heard it.’
‘But for how long?’ Stephanie stared at him. ‘Oh, these big syndicates know what they’re doing all right. They agree to merge with a small company like W.A.A. and then gradually they introduce their own ideas and their own management until in the end it’s more of a takeover than a merger. My father knows this and that’s why he’s fighting – and not only Ventura. The board as well.’
‘You mean the board are against him?’
Stephanie flushed. ‘Well, Jennifer is, for sure. And Aunt Evelyn. When that man was here – that Signor Bastinado—’
‘That’s right. Did you meet him?’
‘Not exactly. I saw him at the office when he was with your father. You realize who he is, don’t you?’
‘Of course. He’s a member of this syndicate.’
‘He’s Ventura’s personal assistant. Anyway, go on. I interrupted you.’
Stephanie frowned. ‘Oh, yes, well, when Signor Bastinado was here he asked a lot of questions about shares and controlling interests. Oh, he did it very cleverly. Jennifer was easy to gull. She enjoys talking to any attractive man, but Aunt Evelyn …’ Stephanie sighed. ‘You see – it means little to them who controls the company, so long as they get a return. But to my father it’s something else – it’s his life!’
Allan sighed now. ‘I see what you mean. But surely this could have been avoided. I mean your father must have known things were going downhill …’
‘Yes, but there was nothing he could do. The big airlines have such a tremendous advantage. They can fly their planes half empty and still talk about cutting their fares. W.A.A. relies on its charter services, but we need new planes – you know that – new equipment! But we can’t afford them without backing.’
Allan patted her hands as they lay in her lap. ‘You really will have to let your father fight his own battles,’ he said.
‘I know that. But it’s Jennifer—’ She sighed again. ‘You know how extravagant she is—’
‘But your father married her. He chose to marry a woman half his age. It’s not your responsibility, Stephanie.’
‘But that doesn’t make it any easier to take, Allan.’ Stephanie bit her lip. ‘I’m sorry. You must get sick of hearing my troubles.’
Allan smiled tenderly. ‘Not at all. In fact I’m glad you feel you can share them with me. It means you regard me as something more than just a friend.’
Stephanie looked at him quickly, sensing what he was about to say, and suddenly she didn’t want to hear it. For a brief moment, sheer panic shot through her being as she realized that whatever feelings she had for Allan they were not yet strong enough to contemplate a serious commitment. She burst into speech, chattering stupidly about one of the spastic children she was caring for, telling him about a film she had watched on television the night before, and the moment passed. She sensed his pain, for he was not an insensitive man and he must have guessed why she suddenly behaved so carelessly. But there was nothing she could say to alleviate it. Maybe it was this trouble with her father, or maybe it was her own immaturity, but whatever it was she needed more time before placing herself in a situation she could not control.
They had a pleasant afternoon out together. They had arranged to go to an exhibition of paintings and sculpture by a young artist friend of Allan’s and afterwards they attended a cocktail party given by the gallery’s owner who had sponsored the showing. Most of the young people there were known to both of them and they were invited to a party that evening to be held at the apartment of another young artist. Stephanie demurred, but with Allan’s encouragement finally agreed on the understanding that she must be allowed to go home first to change and to see her father.
It was about seven-thirty when Allan dropped her at her father’s house, a tall Georgian-fronted building which stood in its own grounds overlooking one of those small squares that abound near Regent’s Park. As she climbed out of the sports car she noticed a long, sleek continental limousine parked to one side of the front door and she frowned curiously. Certainly it was not a car she had seen before or she would have remembered its elegance.
‘I’ll call back in an hour,’ Allan was saying, and she turned absently to him.
‘What? Oh, yes, yes, all right, Allan.’ She smiled and raised a hand as he drove away with his usual ebullience, and then turned to enter the house.
She shed her gloves in the hall and hesitated as she heard voices emanating from the library. Surely her father and Jennifer weren’t arguing again, particularly as they obviously had guests, and yet she could hear her father’s voice raised in anger and she wondered with trepidation who could be arousing such antagonism. Could it possibly be something to do with the proposed merger? Had Pietro Bastinado come back with some new proposition?
She moved compulsively towards the library door and then halted. It was nothing to do with her after all, and yet if Jennifer was in there perhaps her father would be glad of an ally.
With sudden determination she turned the handle and opened the door. The library seemed full of people, but she realized that was because they all seemed to be standing instead of relaxing in the comfortable leather chairs. Jennifer was there and so was Harold Mortimer, her father’s chief accountant. Robert McMaster was leaning heavily on his desk and Stephanie’s heart went out to him before she looked at the man who faced her father across the desk; a man she had never seen before, although the man behind him was familiar; it was Pietro Bastinado.
Her intrusion caused all eyes to turn in her direction and as she met the gaze of the stranger her whole being seemed to suffuse with colour at the insolent penetration of his dark eyes. He was a man like no man she had ever previously encountered. Tall and lean, with a kind of latent virility about him, he was not a handsome man, and yet the carved planes of his face and the grim lines about his mouth and eyes were disturbingly attractive. His hair grew thick and black, low on his neckline so that it brushed the collar of his immaculate white shirt. His clothes fitted him closely and accentuated his masculinity, and from the deep tan of his skin she guessed he was no Englishman. It was an effort to drag her gaze away from that intensive appraisal and she looked back at her father.
Robert McMaster straightened from his stooping position and said: ‘You’re back, Stephanie. You might as well come in. This affects you just as much as any of us.’ He ran a tired hand over his forehead and sank down wearily into his chair. ‘It seems – I can’t go on.’
Stephanie’s brows drew together disbelievingly and she closed the door quickly and advanced towards the desk. Her gaze flickered over Harold Mortimer’s troubled countenance and the compassionate gaze of Pietro Bastinado before reaching again the sphinx-like remoteness of the stranger. With an impatient gesture she looked at her father. ‘What are you talking about?’ she exclaimed.
Jennifer, who had been standing to one side of the door, now spoke. ‘Robert is dramatizing the situation as usual,’ she observed coolly. ‘Signor Ventura has simply been outlining to us your father’s actual position.’
Stephanie’s brain refused to function. So that was who the stranger was, she thought frantically. Santino Ventura himself. The brains behind the organization that wanted to merge with W.A.A. No wonder his presence had caused her to feel apprehensive. But even so, what had been said?
She looked again at Robert McMaster. ‘Please, Father,’ she said. ‘As you said – I have a right to know if this concerns me.’
Santino Ventura moved now. He had been standing with his arms folded, regarding them all broodingly, but now he spoke:
‘Your father has sought to raise money on the strength of the proposed merger. That is to say, he has used the name of my organization in an effort to bluff his way out of an impossible situation. I can only say that I should have thought a man who has been in business as long as your father has been in business should know better than to try those kind of tactics with me.’
Stephanie listened in silence and then looked down at her father’s bent head. ‘Is this true?’
Robert McMaster, looked up. ‘It doesn’t matter now,’ he replied bleakly.
‘But it does!’ Stephanie stared at him. ‘I thought you intended to fight! I thought there was some way—’
‘There is no way,’ replied her father heavily. ‘Signor Ventura is giving me no choice. He has the choice to make, and for the sake of my employees I hope he makes the right one, that’s all.’
‘What do you mean?’ Stephanie was puzzled.
McMaster looked up at Santino Ventura with defeated eyes. ‘Signor Ventura has threatened to withdraw from the deal altogether.’
Stephanie gasped. ‘But – but – you’ve already – I mean—’
‘Exactly, Miss McMaster!’ Santino Ventura’s tones were cold. ‘Your father has borrowed on the strength of my name, because he hoped I would allow the deal to hang fire for a while, giving him time to show whether he was capable of making W.A.A. a going concern. But I regret that is not how I do business.’
‘But if you back out now the firm will collapse,’ she cried hotly.
‘I am quite aware of that.’
Stephanie turned desperately to Harold Mortimer, but he moved uncomfortably before saying: ‘I’m sorry, Stephanie.’
Stephanie shook her head incredulously. ‘But the firm is my father’s life!’ she exclaimed fiercely, turning back to Santino Ventura.
‘It was not my intention to create this situation,’ said the Sicilian expressionlessly.
‘And the alternatives?’ Stephanie caught Harold Mortimer’s attention.
The accountant glanced down at the file he was holding. ‘Signor Ventura could take over the airline,’ he replied heavily.
‘Take over!’ Stephanie spread her hands. ‘But how? I mean even allowing for the fact that the business could collapse, surely McMasters are the majority shareholders?’
Jennifer spoke now. ‘It’s a question of doing what is right for the airline,’ she observed coolly. ‘And as there seems no question that your father is incapable of carrying on without—’
‘You mean you would sell your interest?’ Stephanie interrupted her angrily.
Jennifer shrugged. ‘Why not?’
Stephanie compressed her lips ‘Even so—’
Robert McMaster heaved a sigh ‘Your aunt feels as Jennifer does. Better to make something than lose everything,’ he said slowly. ‘Oh, leave it be, Stephanie. There’s nothing you or I can do now. It’s in Signor Ventura’s hands.’
Stephanie shook her head slowly from side to side. ‘I can’t believe it,’ she said helplessly.
She felt, rather than saw, Pietro Bastinado make an involuntary gesture as though he would have spared her father this final humiliation, but then Santino Ventura straightened and with indolent grace walked to the door and Pietro had to follow him. At the door Ventura turned to regard them all with sardonic appraisal. ‘I think our discussions are over for the moment,’ he observed smoothly. ‘I will return to my hotel and consider the situation. I will let you know my decision in due course.’
Robert McMaster merely nodded, making no attempt to rise or say anything further. Harold Mortimer moved to the door as well. ‘I’ll go, too, Robert,’ he said, with awkward movements of his hands, and McMaster made no answer. Jennifer went out with them to accompany them to the door and silence reigned in the library until the heavy doors were heard to close behind them. Then, as Jennifer strolled back across the hall to join them, Stephanie burst out: ‘How could you? Jennifer, how can you do this to my father?’
Jennifer closed the door, leaning back against it with bored negligence. ‘My dear Stephanie, you don’t know what you’re talking about. I’ve done nothing to your father. Everything that has happened is the result of his own stupidity. My God! I agree with Ventura. Your father should have had more sense than to attempt to play games with him.’
‘Give it a rest, both of you,’ exclaimed McMaster, supporting his head on his hands. ‘I can do without your opinions.’
Stephanie sighed. ‘But, Father, is there nothing you can do?’ She spread her hands. ‘Why couldn’t the merger go through as planned?’
‘Because Ventura has decided he doesn’t want to play it that way any longer,’ replied her father.
‘But why did you do it?’ Stephanie stared at him. ‘Why couldn’t you just have accepted the merger in the first place if things were so desperate? You must have had a motive for refusing. You’re over fifty, Father. Does retiring really mean that much to you?’
‘No – no, not exactly.’ Her father sounded weary of the subject. ‘But consider my situation, Stephanie. I have a wife who expects a certain standard of living. How long do you think we …’ he indicated Jennifer, ‘… how long do you think we could live on capital if I was thrown aside eventually for one of Ventura’s men?’
Jennifer gave an impatient grimace. ‘Oh, Robert, you’re beginning to bore me, do you know that? All you preach these days is economy! Why should I be forced to economize when I have a perfectly legitimate holding in the company that’s worth a lot of money to me? Ventura’s offer is more than generous; in fact it’s positively extravagant.’ She gave an excited little laugh. ‘Perhaps he considers that an attractive woman should not have to scrimp and save!’ Stephanie turned on her angrily. ‘You fool!’ she snapped contemptuously. ‘You don’t even have the sense to realize that Ventura knows perfectly well that as McMaster’s wife you wouldn’t accept anything but a tempting figure! After all, whatever he’s paying you, it’s chickenfeed to an organization like his!’
Jennifer stepped forward and slapped Stephanie full on the face impulsively. ‘Don’t you dare to speak to me like that, you priggish little chit!’ she spat out furiously. ‘You McMasters! You think you own the earth!’
Stephanie fell back a step, one hand pressed to her burning cheek, and her father was at last aroused from his lethargy. ‘For God’s sake, Jennifer!’ he muttered. ‘Let’s at least attempt to behave like civilized human beings! Whatever you feel about it, I will not stand by and allow you to treat my daughter as a whipping boy for your frustration. You know she’s right. You know Ventura is using you against me!’
Jennifer’s face hardened. ‘Maybe he is, maybe he is. Just don’t try to get me to change my mind, that’s all.’
‘I wouldn’t try,’ returned McMaster grimly, and sank back down in his seat.
With a muffled word of departure, Stephanie wrenched open the door, brushing past Jennifer without even looking at her. She ran up the wide staircase and in the sanctuary of her room she flung herself miserably on the bed. Her smarting cheek meant less than the realization that things had finally come to a head and now her father was little more than a puppet to be moved at will by his masters. There seemed no escape from the inevitable and her heart bled for the man who had tried so desperately to hang on to the firm that he had himself started so many years ago. It wasn’t his fault that he hadn’t the incisive thrust that was necessary to be successful in business today, and Jennifer had known what she was doing years ago when she had suggested he make her a director of the firm. Only Aunt Evelyn could prevent the certainty of a take-over and Stephanie knew only too well that she would not raise a finger to stop it. She had cut off her brother when he married Jennifer only eighteen months after the death of his first wife, and the breach had never been healed. Besides, no doubt she was being paid well for her shares as well.
Stephanie sighed and slid off the bed, taking off the trouser suit and hanging it away in her fitted wardrobe. Then she turned back to the bed and as she did so the scarlet telephone on the bedside table caught her eye. With determination, she flung herself on her stomach on the bed and lifted the receiver. Then she dialled the number of Allan Priestley’s apartment and waited as the ringing tone began. Presently the receiver was lifted and Allan’s voice came through to her.
‘Oh, Allan! Hello, love. This is Stephanie. Look, I’m afraid I can’t go to that party with you this evening.’
Allan sounded annoyed. ‘Why ever not?’
Stephanie hesitated. ‘Well, I can’t really explain over the telephone.’
‘Why not? Has something happened? Is it to do with your father?’
‘Sort of. Anyway, Allan, I do have a bit of a headache, and quite honestly I didn’t want to go in the first place. You can still go—’
‘I don’t want to go without you!’ Allan snorted impatiently.
‘Well, I’m sorry, Allan, but that’s how it is. Give me a ring tomorrow, hmn?’
There was silence for a moment and then Allan said: ‘Oh, all right, Stephanie. But I do wish you wouldn’t make it sound so mysterious. Are you sure you’re all right?’
‘Of course. I told you, I just have a bit of a headache, that’s all. ‘Bye for now.’
‘G’bye.’ Allan sounded reluctant, but Stephanie rang off before he could say anything else. Then she lay for a moment looking at the phone, seeing again the dark, unrelenting features of Santino Ventura. It didn’t seem fair that one man should possess this power over her father, albeit power that Jennifer and Aunt Evelyn between them had placed into his hands. With a sigh, Stephanie got up and went into her bathroom. Maybe a shower would rid her of this awful feeling of despondency.
She was bathed and dressed in velvet pants and a lounging sweater of fine wool when she heard the telephone ringing. She did not bother to answer it. It could be no one for her. And so it was a surprise when Miller tapped at her bedroom door to advise her that a Signor Bastinado was on the telephone.
Thanking her, Stephanie dashed across the room to the telephone and lifted the receiver with hasty fingers. ‘Hello. This is Stephanie McMaster.’
‘Hello, signorina.’ Pietro’s voice had an unmistakable accent. ‘I hope I did not disturb you.’
‘Oh, no – no.’ Stephanie bit her lip. ‘What can I do for you?’
Pietro seemed to hesitate, and then he said: ‘I wondered if you might have dinner with me this evening.’
Stephanie sank down on to the bed. ‘Dinner?’ she echoed, slowly, thinking hard. Why was he asking her out for dinner? Dared she go, knowing she had just told Allan she had a headache? And yet might this not be an opportunity to fraternize with the – enemy? She frowned. Pietro Bastinado must have some influence with Ventura.
Without further hesitation, she said: ‘Why – yes, I think I could manage that.’
‘Bene! I was afraid you might have some previous engagement, and it is rather late.’
“I – I was going out, but I – I changed my mind,’ she said, carefully.
‘I’m so glad you did.’ Pietro sounded gratifyingly eager. ‘I’ll pick you up in say thirty minutes. Is nine o’clock all right?’
‘Fine.’ Stephanie felt a twinge of excitement, and when he rang off she sat for a few moments wondering whether she was doing the right thing. It would not do for her father or Jennifer to find out where she was going and with whom, and she must speak to Miller and warn her not to say who had called her.
With haste, she changed into a plain chiffon cocktail dress in black, with an edging of sequins at the cuffed collar and sleeves. She secured her hair in a pleat at the back of her head and added long diamond earrings. Then, with a silver fur cape about her shoulders, she went downstairs. She encountered Miller in the hall and was speaking to her when her father emerged from the library. His face brightened a little at the sight of her and he said: ‘Going out, my dear?’
‘Yes.’ Stephanie managed not to colour guiltily. ‘We – er – Allan and I have been invited to a party.’
‘I see. Is he calling for you?’
Stephanie bit her lip. ‘Er – no – I’m meeting him – there.’
‘Oh.’ Her father looked surprised and with a feeling of betrayal Stephanie gave him a light kiss on his cheek and hurried to the door. She was just in time. As she stepped outside a cab halted at the entrance to the drive and she saw Pietro himself climbing out and speaking to the driver.
When he saw Stephanie he came hastening towards her and she ran a little to prevent their being noticed from the windows of the house. Not until she was inside the cab did she relax, and Pietro glanced at her curiously. ‘You did not tell your parents you were meeting me?’ he hazarded dryly.
‘That’s right.’ Stephanie bit her lip. ‘My father – wouldn’t understand.’
‘I see.’ Pietro was silent for a moment and then he drew out his cigarettes and offered her one. When she refused, he lit one himself and said: ‘Why did you come, signorina?’
Stephanie coloured now, but he could not see the telltale brilliance in the darkness. ‘Because I wanted to,’ she said.
Pietro drew on his cigarette. ‘With what motive?’ he queried. ‘Or am I to believe that it was my scintillating company you sought?’
Stephanie bent her head. ‘Why did you ask me?’ she countered.
Pietro smiled. ‘Because you are a beautiful young woman and you must know that all Italians appreciate beauty in their women.’
Stephanie stared at him, trying to see if he was teasing her. ‘You’re not serious?’
‘Why not? You are a beautiful woman, signorina. And I am only human, after all. You interest me, you intrigue me. And your reasons for accepting my invitation intrigue me even more.’
Stephanie ran her tongue over her dry lips. ‘Why do you think I accepted your invitation?’
Pietro shrugged. ‘I think you had several reasons,’ he said at last. ‘But we will leave them until later, shall we, Stephanie? May I call you that?’
Stephanie nodded rather indifferently. ‘If you like.’
‘Thank you. I do.’ He smiled and she sank back into her corner feeling suddenly afraid. It was all right imagining herself capable of manipulating this man in the warmth and light of her bedroom and quite another considering it here, alone with him. Why had he invited her to dine? What possible advantage could he gain that he had not gained already?
They dined at a small Italian restaurant on the fringes of Soho. It was not a place Stephanie had previously visited although it was gradually gaining in popularity. Pietro was greeted like a long-lost cousin and their service was impeccable. The food was slightly rich for Stephanie’s taste, but the wine was exquisite and she commented upon it.
Pietro smiled, handling his glass within his two hands, holding it up to the level of his eyes. ‘Yes,’ he said slowly. ‘This wine comes from Sicily. From the vineyards of the Castello di Strega.’
‘The Castello di Strega,’ echoed Stephanie curiously.
‘That sounds an unusual name.’
‘It is. The castle of the witch. It is the home of my employer and brother-in-law, Santino Ventura.’
‘Oh, I see.’ Stephanie’s glass landed on the table with a little thud.
‘You do not like my brother-in-law, signorino?’
‘I scarcely know him.’ Stephanie was abrupt.
‘But you disapprove of his actions?’
‘Naturally. It’s my father who is involved.’
‘Ah, yes, your father.’
Stephanie leaned forward. ‘Why did you invite me out this evening?’ she asked.
Pietro brought out his cigarettes and lit one slowly. ‘What do you think of this place?’ he inquired, waving a casual arm at the decor.
Stephanie compressed her lips. ‘It’s very nice.’
‘It belongs to one of my brother-in-law’s companies.’
‘Indeed?’ Stephanie was getting impatient. ‘Signor Bastinado—’
‘Oh, make it Pietro, please.’
‘Very well, then, Pietro.’ Stephanie sighed. ‘I want to know why you invited me to dine with you.’
Pietro tapped ash into the ashtray. ‘You haven’t told me why you came yet,’ he countered, rather mockingly.
Stephanie sighed again. ‘It doesn’t seem important now.’
‘Oh, but it is.’ Pietro leaned towards her. ‘Believe me, Stephanie, I want you to know, what happened this afternoon was not of my choosing.’
Stephanie moved back. ‘I – I find that hard to believe.’
‘Why should you? Am I my brother-in-law’s keeper? What Santino does he does because he wants to do it. I have no control over his actions.’
‘None?’ All of a sudden Stephanie felt deflated.
‘None.’ Pietro shook his head, ‘If you imagine that by humouring me you stand some chance of influencing Santino, I regret you are to be disappointed. I can do nothing.’
Stephanie bent her head and her attitude was one of defeat. Pietro sighed. ‘I am sorry,’ he said. ‘If it’s any consolation to you, I did try. I did not want this to happen, believe me. You and your father have offered me your hospitality and I must be honest. I wanted Santino to leave everything to me, but unfortunately I showed my feelings and he would not allow me to continue. He took the affair out of my bungling hands …’
Stephanie looked up. ‘I’m glad you’ve told me,’ she said. ‘It was kind of you to try and help us …’
Pietro’s eyes darkened. ‘Not your father, Stephanie – you! And it was not kind at all.’ His hand closed over hers as it lay on the table. ‘My reasons for wanting my position made clear concern you and me. I do not want you to hate me, not when I find you so disturbingly attractive. Do you understand?’ His eyes burned into hers passionately.
Stephanie felt horrified. She had not thought, she had not dreamed that Pietro might imagine there was more to this assignation than a desire to help her father. She tried in vain to tug her hand away from his, but his hold was unyielding and he leaned towards her urgently.
‘Pietro!’ she exclaimed. ‘I appreciate what you’ve tried to do for us – for me, but this – this is impossible! I – I – you’re making a terrible mistake—’
‘I would agree with you, signorina!’
The harsh accented tones almost startled Stephanie out of her seat and Pietro released her hand abruptly to rise and face the grim angry countenance of the man he had told her was his brother-in-law …
SANTINO VENTURA stood beside their table looking darkly vengeful and the epitome of male arrogance aroused to dangerous intensity. Stephanie, weak and trembling from the shock of this sudden confrontation, wondered how he had known where to find them and how long he had been standing there behind their table, listening. She felt she ought to say something, but before Ventura’s blazing rage she stood no chance of a hearing. No more did Pietro. His employer was lashing him with his tongue, speaking to him in low yet violent tones, and as it was in their own language, Stephanie could not follow what was being said. Pietro tried to interject a word here and there, spreading his hands in typical continental appeal for reason, but to no avail, and he knew it.
Stephanie stood up. She felt that this was an opportune moment for her to make her escape. Surely neither of these men would notice her departure. But she was mistaken. As she lifted her evening bag and gathered her cape about her shoulders, a lean brown hand shot out and caught her forearm before she could move away. The hard grip of those fingers bit into her arm cruelly and she winced in pain.
‘You will stay, signorina!’ commanded the low, compelling tones of Santino Ventura.
Stephanie felt her breast rising and falling in uneven haste, and she tried desperately to regain her composure.
‘Will you please let go of my arm, Signor Ventura?’ she requested in a jerky little voice. ‘I am not part of your organization and you cannot intimidate me!’
‘Can I not?’ Santino Ventura’s brilliantly smouldering gaze turned in her direction for a moment before flickering back contemptuously to Pietro. ‘Do you think you are unique, signorina? That you possess some especial powers which make you immune from dominance?’ He turned back to her scornfully. ‘Believe me, Signorina McMaster, you are just as vulnerable as Pietro, your so-gallant champion, and twice as irresponsible!’
Stephanie stared at him tremulously. ‘What do you mean?’
Santino Ventura’s lip curled. ‘I wonder what your father would say to learn that his so-loyal daughter has kept a secret assignation with my assistant.’
Stephanie gasped. ‘My reasons for accepting Pietro’s invitation were not personal ones—’
‘No?’ Santino Ventura half smiled, but it was without amusement. ‘And who will believe that statement? Your father? Your stepmother, perhaps?’
‘Do you intend to tell them?’ Stephanie’s voice shook a little.
Santino Ventura shrugged indolently and released her wrist. ‘I will think about it,’ he conceded grimly.
‘Ma che, diamine, Santino—’ Pietro began desperately, only to be silenced by a look from his employer.
‘Come,’ went on the other man, ‘let us sit down again. We have matters to discuss.’
Without waiting for their reactions, Santino drew out a chair, swung it round and straddled it with casual ease. Then he beckoned the wine waiter and as Stephanie and Pietro reluctantly took their seats he ordered some champagne. The waiter bowed low. If he had been deferential to Pietro he practically genuflected before his master. A few moments later a bottle of champagne appeared in a bucket of ice and the waiter extracted the cork with care and poured some into the wine glass he had set before Santino Ventura. Santino tasted it experimentally and then nodded abruptly and the waiter filled all three glasses, his hands visibly trembling as he did so.
‘Is all right, padrone?’ he inquired at the finish, and Santino looked up and nodded.
‘Bene, Luigi. Tell me; your mother – she is well?’
‘Oh, si, padrone, she is fine,’ exclaimed Luigi, nodding his head vigorously. ‘She would be most honoured if you were to pay her a visit while you are here, padrone.’
Santino smiled. ‘Some other time, Luigi,’ he said, and Luigi nodded again and withdrew, bowing ceremoniously.
Stephanie, who had watched this interchange with only transitory interest, felt a shiver of apprehension slide along her spine as Santino’s attention reverted to herself. There was an indomitable air about him that defied analysis, and she realized as she had done in the library that here was a man who would never forget or be forgotten.
‘So, signorina,’ he said. ‘You thought to influence me through Pietro, is that it?’
Stephanie saw no point in trying to deny it and she moved her shoulders indifferently. Santino drew out a case of cigars and placed one between his teeth. When it was lit and the smoke exhaled aromatically into the air above her head, he said:
‘Why does it trouble you so that your father may be put out of business?’
‘That’s a ridiculous question,’ Stephanie snapped angrily, angry with herself for putting herself in this impossible situation. She was no match for this man and she knew it.
‘Is it? Why? Other men – I may say, stronger men – than your father have succumbed to my organization. Besides, had he not been so foolhardy, the merger would presently be taking place.’
Stephanie pressed the palms of her hands together. ‘My – my father did not want a merger. He wanted a chance to raise money – to put the company back on its feet. He knows that if he allows you to merge with W.A.A. sooner or later the shifting of authority will begin and he will become nothing but a figurehead.’
Santino shook his head slowly. ‘And is that so terrible? Does your father wish to work all his life? Surely most men look forward to their retirement. He is not a young man, signorina.’
‘I know that. But you don’t know my father as I do. Retirement – in his circumstances – would kill him!’
Santino put his cigar between his teeth. ‘What are these special circumstances?’
Stephanie moved her shoulders helplessly. ‘My father has a wife, signor, and she is much younger than he is—’
‘I know that.’ Santino was abrupt.
‘Then surely you can see that there could be difficulties—’
Santino frowned. ‘Your stepmother is an extravagant woman, signorina. Is that what you are trying to say?’
Stephanie flushed. ‘Jennifer doesn’t care about the company—’
‘But the deal I have offered her is more than acceptable.’
Stephanie’s eyes clouded. ‘I know that. She has already taunted my father with your offer.’
Santino sighed now. ‘It would seem that your father’s troubles stem from a more personal relationship than merely W.A.A.—’ He chewed his lower lip. ‘I cannot be held responsible for the vagaries of his wife.’
Stephanie clenched her fists. ‘I expected you to say that.’
Santino’s eyes narrowed. ‘Then you were not disappointed, were you, signorina?’ He snapped his fingers impatiently. ‘I am not a marriage guidance counsellor, I manage a syndicate of companies who rely on me to make the right decisions. Sentiment is no part of my make-up, signorina.’
‘Obviously.’ Stephanie’s nails bit into the palms of her hands.
Santino studied the glowing tip of his cigar. ‘So now we return to the reason why you are here this evening. You were hoping perhaps to persuade Pietro to intercede on your father’s behalf, si?’
Stephanie made no reply, but her silence was enough and he went on: ‘It seems to me that your inclinations were not very strong, signorina. From the way you were pleading with him to let you go when I so rudely interrupted you, I did not think you intended to allow your good intentions to lead you into difficulties.’
Stephanie flushed. ‘I don’t have to sit here and listen to your derision, signor—’ She half rose to her feet.
Pietro banged his fist on the table. ‘Santino, can’t you see the girl is innocent? She’s only concerned for her father, that’s all. Is that so unusual? Wouldn’t you expect Lucia to do the same for you—’
Santino’s cold eyes surveyed his assistant. ‘I have told you before, Pietro, not to get involved. You speak like a lovesick fool. No one is in any doubt as to your motives for behaving like this, so be silent! I care not for your mawkish sensitivity!’
Pietro’s tanned cheeks turned red and Stephanie felt embarrassed for him. ‘If you’ll excuse me—’ she began, but Santino silenced her with a cold stare.
‘Wait!’ he commanded. ‘I have not finished, and I am not used to having to repeat myself.’ He glanced at Pietro. ‘You mentioned Lucia, Pietro. Might one ask why?’
Pietro shook his head. ‘Just as a comparison,’ he said defensively.
‘Hmnn.’ Santino put his cigar between his teeth as he poured himself some more champagne, raising his eyebrows when Stephanie put her hand over her glass preventing him from refilling it. ‘Maybe, Pietro, your comparison has given me the ghost of an idea.’
Pietro shrugged indifferently. ‘Oh yes?’
‘Yes.’ Santino took his cigar out of his mouth and savoured a mouthful of the sparkling liquid from his glass. ‘Yes, indeed.’ He ran a long finger round the rim of his glass. ‘You yourself said that Lucia needed someone.’
Pietro’s brows drew together and he stared at Santino in astonishment. His mouth fell open and he gazed at his employer as though he could not believe his hearing. Then he gave a short mirthless laugh. ‘You can’t mean—’ he shook his head in a stupefied way – ‘you don’t seriously imagine that – that Stephanie—’ He raised his hands in an involuntary gesture. ‘What game is this, Santino?’
Santino regarded Pietro tolerantly. ‘No game, Pietro.’ Stephanie, who had been listening to this interchange with a rising sense of apprehension, felt a feeling akin to panic invade her system. There was about the Sicilian a disturbingly bland air of provocation, and while as yet she had no idea what he was suggesting she sensed it boded no good for her. And who was this woman, Lucia, that Pietro had mentioned? Was she his wife? His sister? His daughter, perhaps? She racked her brain trying to remember what her father had told her about Santino Ventura. Had he said he was married? She couldn’t honestly recall.
Now Santino’s attention was focused on herself and she felt her cheeks begin to burn under that appraising scrutiny. ‘Yes,’ he said slowly, tipping his head insolently to one side. ‘You may do very well, signorina.’
Stephanie took a deep breath. ‘Very well for what, signor?’
Santino stubbed out the cigar. ‘I have a daughter, signorina. Her mother is dead and she is but four years of age. She requires a companion, a young companion, to whom she can turn in times of trouble. It is difficult to find anyone suitable in Sicily. Young girls marry and old women grow tired. Besides, it pleases me that she should learn English and I think you as her teacher would do very well.’
Stephanie didn’t know whether to laugh or cry at the ludicrousness of his suggestion. She stared at him incredulously, amazed that he should imagine he could sit there and calmly issue instructions that she should become companion to his daughter. How dared he imagine that she would even consider such a proposition? She shook her head. Whatever women were like in Sicily, certainly he was mistaken if he thought he could command an English girl in this way.
‘Signor Ventura,’ she said at last, speaking very clearly and very carefully, ‘I don’t think I have understood you aright.’ She wet her lips with her tongue tentatively. ‘I do not recall at any time during this conversation that I have intimated that I might require another occupation to the one I have now.’ She tried to relax her features, but they persisted in remaining taut. ‘Besides which, I might add, you are the last person I would accept employment from.’
Santino let her finish, lighting another cigar with annoying deliberation. ‘My dear Miss McMaster,’ he said, at the end, ‘if you have not understood my proposition then that is my fault. As to whether you accept it or otherwise, I would suggest you consider its terms very carefully before refusing.’
Stephanie pressed her lips together. ‘Obviously I have not understood you,’ she said in a tight little voice. ‘What else is there?’
Santino inhaled on his cigar. ‘Your father needs money. You said so yourself. I am considering preparing a contract in which I guarantee your father sufficient funds to modernize and expand his airline on the understanding that the concessions granted to W.A.A. should also be granted to Western International. I shall not interfere in his management, providing he accepts the conditions. I do not intend that he should be competing with W.I. but rather running an additional service for a different clientele.’
Stephanie felt weak all over. An awful trembling sickness had invaded her stomach and she hardly heard Pietro’s angry remonstrance or Santino’s cool rejoinder. All that possessed her mind and body was the realization that she was being given the chance to give her father back his self-respect and remove once and for all the threats Jennifer was presently holding over him. But at what cost to her?
The colour seemed to be draining from her face and Pietro, noticing her pallor, snatched up the wine glass and held it to her lips. The bubbling liquid revived her and she sank back in her chair, gripping the edge of the table tightly.
‘Are you all right?’ Pietro was all concern, drawing his chair round to hers, regarding her with tender solicitude.
Stephanie managed to nod, the vaguely ruthless expression on Santino Ventura’s face arousing her more strongly than the wine. With determination, she straightened her shoulders and said: ‘Could I have a cigarette, please?’
Pietro put one into her hand and flicked his lighter while Santino watched them closely, and then when Stephanie had inhaled rather jerkily several times, he said: ‘If you have recovered from your vapours, do you think we could continue?’
‘Santino, for God’s sake—’ Pietro clenched his fists.
Santino gave an impatient gesture. ‘If you cannot be quiet, Pietro, you must leave us. This matter concerns only Signorina McMaster and myself.’
Pietro pressed his lips together mutinously, but he made no move to go and Stephanie felt relieved. Somehow she did not feel capable of coping with this man alone.
Gathering her composure, she said faintly: ‘You would finance W.A.A. if I agree to become your daughter’s companion?’
‘Something like that,’ replied Santino expressionlessly.
Stephanie shook her head bewilderedly, glancing helplessly at Pietro. But he merely gave an involuntary gesture which could have meant anything and she realized she could expect little assistance from him. He was completely under the other man’s dominance.
‘But surely,’ she exclaimed, making a final bid for sanity, ‘you could finance my father and employ an agency to find you a companion for your daughter! Good heavens, I should imagine there are dozens of English girls who would jump at the chance of living in Sicily.’
‘I have made my proposition, signorina.’ Santino was without emotion. There was no way of appealing to him.
Stephanie spread her hands. ‘But how could I come to Sicily?’ she exclaimed.
‘That is what you must ask yourself, signorina.’
‘But you don’t understand, signor; I – I have a job here, I work in a hospital! I can’t just leave it like that!’
‘That is up to you, signorina.’
Stephanie heaved a sigh. ‘But what about my home – my family?’ She ran a hand over her hair nervously. ‘I – I have a boy-friend, too. We – we expect to get engaged at Christmas.’
That wasn’t strictly true, but she saw no reason to withdraw the statement, particularly as Santino merely shrugged his shoulders indifferently and made no comment.
Pietro however found her final remark disturbing. ‘You did not tell me you were almost betrothed!’ he accused her shortly.
Stephanie held up her head. ‘I didn’t think it was any of your business,’ she retorted, unwilling to accept his dissension as well.
Santino seemed vaguely amused by Pietro’s annoyance and Stephanie thought with a grim sense of foreboding what a cruel devil he could be. How could she place herself in this man’s hands, miles from anything or anyone she knew?
Now she lifted her shoulders in an expressive gesture and said: ‘I shall need time to think – to consider your proposition, signor.’
Santino considered her unsmilingly. ‘I do not have a lot of time, signorina.’
Stephanie took a deep breath. ‘You can’t expect me to decide something like this on the spur of the moment.’
‘Why not? It is a simple question: can you allow your father to be ruined when you have the power to prevent it?’
‘But that’s not fair—’ she broke out tremulously.
‘Nothing in life ever is, I am afraid,’ he observed coldly. ‘And now, if you will excuse me, I will allow Pietro to escort you back to your father’s house. I will give you …’ he consulted the thick gold watch on his wrist – ‘I will give you twelve hours. I shall expect your answer at eleven o’clock tomorrow morning. You may telephone me at this number. Just say yes or no. That will be enough.’
Santino swung his leg across the chair and straightened. ‘Arrivederci, signorina. Pietro!’
Pietro rose too, and excusing himself to Stephanie he accompanied Santino across the restaurant to the door. He seemed to be listening to something the older man was saying and Stephanie, watching them, felt the beginnings of despair. What could she do? How could she refuse? She knew she would never forgive herself if by her indifference she drove her father to desperate lengths.
When Pietro came back she got immediately to her feet and said: ‘I want to go home – now.’
‘Of course.’ Pietro stood back and allowed her to precede him across the room. Once outside, the chill evening air struck her face like an icy blast and she realized she was numb with cold. But it was an inner coldness, one which Santino Ventura had inspired, and she wondered if she would ever be free of it again.
Pietro hailed a taxi and once inside, he said: ‘I’m sorry,’ rather inadequately.
Stephanie glanced at him. ‘It’s not your fault,’ she managed tautly.
Pietro said nothing for a few minutes and then he went on: ‘What will you do?’
Stephanie gave him a tremulous look. ‘Don’t ask me that. I just don’t know.’
‘Will you tell your father tonight?’
‘No!’ The word was tom from her. ‘No, I couldn’t do that. I have to make the decision on my own.’
Pietro nodded, a strange expression in his eyes, and Stephanie had the oddest feeling that he had wanted that answer from her.
When the taxi reached the house, she slid out without waiting for him to help her. ‘Good night, Pietro,’ she said shortly. ‘It’s – it’s been – very edifying!’ and as her voice broke she fled up the drive to the doors, leaving him standing there.
To her intense annoyance, she encountered Jennifer in the hall. The older woman was wearing a crimson velvet house-gown that accentuated her dark beauty, and she was beautiful, Stephanie had to acknowledge.
‘Well, well, the prodigal’s return!’ she observed dryly, as Stephanie closed the front door. ‘Where have you been?’ Stephanie chose not to answer, walking swiftly across the hall to the stairs. But Jennifer’s next words halted her. ‘Allan has been here this evening. He wanted to know how you were. Your father told him that you had said you were meeting him at some party. Obviously, someone was mistaken.’
Stephanie swung round dejectedly. ‘And what did Allan say?’
Jennifer sighed. ‘He was rather annoyed, naturally. After all, he thought you were unwell.’
Stephanie chewed bitterly at her lip. ‘Damn!’ she exclaimed. ‘Damn, damn, damn!’
‘Such language,’ remarked Jennifer mockingly, and yawned. ‘God, I’m tired! Exactly where have you been anyway?’ She frowned.
Stephanie shook her head. ‘Out,’ she replied sharply.
Jennifer’s eyes glittered. ‘Charming!’ she murmured indifferently. ‘In any case, I could hazard a guess.’
Stephanie stared at her. ‘I doubt it.’
‘Oh, I don’t know.’ Jennifer was annoyingly tormenting.
Stephanie turned and began to mount the stairs. ‘Good night, Jennifer,’ she said quietly.
‘How about that Bastinado man?’ Jennifer called after her. ‘That young Italian. What was his first name? Peter – Pietro! That’s it, isn’t it? Pietro Bastinado. Ventura’s assistant. He couldn’t take his eyes off you earlier this evening. I bet that’s who you’ve been with, isn’t it?’ Jennifer looked at her triumphantly. ‘Poor old Allan!’
Stephanie stopped again and turning looked down at her stepmother. Jennifer regarded her mockingly and chuckled, ‘You can’t deny it, can you?’
Stephanie would not allow Jennifer to get away with it. She might tell her father and Stephanie could not risk that. ‘You’re making a mistake, Jennifer,’ she said tautly. ‘I’m not interested in Pietro Bastinado.’
Jennifer raised her eyebrows. ‘No?’ Her lips thinned. ‘Then who have you been with? You don’t know anyone else, other than that crowd you go about with, and it couldn’t be one of them, not one of Allan’s friends.’ She wrapped her gown closer about her and then her eyes flickered curiously back to her stepdaughter, a sudden thought manifesting itself in her mind. ‘You couldn’t possibly – I mean – you haven’t tried to see Ventura—’ She halted, staring at Stephanie intently.
Stephanie’s reactions were not quick enough to prevent Jennifer from seeing the guilt in her eyes, and the older woman stared at her furiously. ‘For God’s sake, Stephanie,’ she snapped, ‘you haven’t attempted to bargain with Ventura on your father’s behalf, have you?’
Stephanie shook her head slowly, but from the suspicion in Jennifer’s face it was obvious she didn’t believe her. Jennifer grasped the banister and stared angrily up at her and with an exclamation Stephanie turned and ran up the stairs. She heard Jennifer following her, calling her to stop, but she ignored her, running along the wide landing to her room, locking the door so that when Jennifer turned the handle it would not give.
‘Stephanie!’ Jennifer’s voice was taut with anger. ‘Open this door at once! I want to speak to you.’
‘Go away, Jennifer. I’m taking a bath.’ Stephanie stood in the entrance to her bathroom trembling a little.
Jennifer hammered on the door. ‘Stephanie, if you’ve seen Ventura and you’ve said or done anything to jeopardize those shares—’
Stephanie pressed her lips together and went into the bathroom fully, slamming the door so that Jennifer could hear her and turning on the bath taps to drown the sound of Jennifer’s knocking. Then she sat down on the wicker clothes basket and buried her face in her hands. Oh, God, she thought, whatever am I going to do?
She hardly slept at all. Tossing and turning in her comfortable bed, when sleep did come to claim her it was plagued with nightmares of demons and witches and castles engulfed in flame, and she awoke sweating with fear, the bed clothes a tortured mass at her feet. She rose in the early hours and went to the window, looking out on the still sleeping city. Somewhere in that mass of shops and offices and hotels, Santino Ventura was sleeping, no doubt dreamlessly, uncaring that he was probably going to destroy her life … Did nothing ever disturb him emotionally? Would no appeal reach that callous heart of his? Had he no thought at all for the humanity of the situation? She shook her head helplessly, recalling with piercing clarity everything he had said. Why had he chosen her? What possible difference could there be between herself and a qualified nanny? In fact practically anyone would be more suitable. She had had no experience of teaching, other than simple practices for the use of the patients in the psychiatric ward. She knew little Italian, and the child apparently did not speak English. It seemed an impossible situation.
She turned back from the window and flung herself on to her bed, staring at the scarlet telephone. She wondered if Allan was awake yet. She wondered what he thought of her disappearance last evening. It seemed doubly traitorous when she had told him she had a headache, and would he believe that she had not had any plans for going out when she had telephoned him? And more important, would he believe that her motives for accepting Pietro’s invitation were not personal ones?
Then she rolled on to her back and stared up at the ceiling. What did it matter anyway? If she did, what it seemed she was being forced to do, and went to live at the Castello di Strega in Sicily she might never see Allan again …
She remained in her bedroom until late in the morning, wanting to avoid the eventual confrontation with Jennifer and her father. No doubt Jennifer would have told her father what had happened the night before, but after her stepmother had gone away no one else had come to her door, so perhaps not. In any event, sooner or later the crunch would come, and she needed all her strength to face that.
It was five minutes past eleven when she telephoned the number Santino Ventura had given her. A strange man’s voice answered the telephone and he insisted on knowing her identity before putting her through to Ventura. When eventually Ventura came on the line it was almost a relief, and she wondered what capacity the other man served. Was he servant – or bodyguard? The latter seemed likely.
Ventura’s voice was as cold and indifferent as she remembered it to be and a chill struck her being as he said: ‘You have made a decision, signorina?’
‘Y – yes, signor.’
‘That is your decision?’
‘Yes, signor.’ Stephanie swallowed hard. ‘You won’t change your mind—?’
But all she heard was the dialling tone. He had rung off.
She replaced her receiver as though it had bitten her, a frown marring the smoothness of her brow. He was an insensitive animal, not a man, not a human being. Her lips trembled and she bit them to prevent them from doing so. She was committed now, and she must go and tell her father what she had done …
Unlocking her bedroom door, she went slowly down the stairs. Miller was in the hall and she looked up in surprise. ‘Oh, you’re awake, miss. Do you want some coffee?’
Stephanie swallowed again. ‘Maybe later, thank you, Miller,’ she said faintly, and the servant regarded her strangely.
‘Are you all right, miss?’
Stephanie managed a faint smile. ‘Of course. I – I had rather a restless night, that’s all. Er – where is my father?’
‘In the library, miss. But he’s on the telephone at the moment. A – a Signor Ventura, is that right?’
Stephanie stared at her for a moment. ‘Signor Ventura?’ she echoed.
‘Yes, miss. The call came through a few moments ago.’
‘I see.’ Stephanie wet her lips with her tongue. ‘And – and Mrs. McMaster? Where is she?’
Miller frowned. ‘She went out, miss, about an hour ago. She didn’t say where she was going.’
‘I see.’ Stephanie nodded. ‘Thank you, Miller. You may bring coffee to the library for my father and myself.’
As Miller walked away, Stephanie crossed the hall to the library, and after a light tap on the panels of the door, she went in. Her father was still on the telephone and he regarded her intently as she entered the room, obviously listening closely to what Santino Ventura was telling him. His brows were drawn together with some degree of incredulity, and he patted the desk beside him, indicating that Stephanie should come to sit there. Then he looked at her with expressive eyes, shaking his head in a stunned way.
Stephanie guessed that she was not going to have to tell her father what Santino Ventura had suggested. She might have known he would not allow her to give such information. He would want his position making perfectly clear.
At last her father ran a weak hand over his forehead which was visibly perspiring and said: ‘I find all this just – just too much, signor.’
Stephanie heard the blur of Santino’s voice going on and her father nodded his head rapidly several times. ‘Yes, yes, yes, I know, I know. But I just find it hard to accept. I – I never suspected—’
Stephanie frowned. Suspected what? What was there to suspect? She wished there was an extension in the room so that she could hear what was being said. She tapped her father’s arm to attract his attention, but he shook off her hand impatiently, obviously intent on what the other man was saying.
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