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“Daphne, hurry up! We’ll miss the boat.”
Scribbling into my notebook, I pushed back my chair to face an impatient sister. “Angela, you above any ought to understand. I had the most fabulous sentence! A sweeping statement of—”
“That’s great. Now you can sweep yourself out the door.”
Sighing, I glanced outside. “We still have five minutes. The boat won’t leave without us.”
“Oh, yes it will.”
I watched my elder sister storm out of the inn and thought I had better follow without complaint.
Running along to catch up with her brisk, angry walk, I wondered what ailed her. The food? The bad coffee at the inn? Lack of sleep, perhaps? I shook my head. Truly, a fellow writer should know better than to disturb one’s sudden inspiration. “Angela! Wait!”
But she did not wait, nor did she answer me as I hastened down to the boat ramp, admiring her poise and skillful attire.
We were going to an island to find inspiration for our art. Why did she have such a glum look about her?
She had been rather irritable of late. But I didn’t know the reasons behind her moods. Shrugging my shoulders, I boarded the swaying and weathered old ferryboat, pausing to appreciate the colors swirling in the murky sea below. The sea, so mysterious and changeable, always fascinated me.
“St. Mary’s Island.” I pointed excitably when we eventually navigated across the rocky waves and land came into view.
Angela snapped the window shut. “It’s raining. Can’t you see? Really, Daphne, sometimes you just—”
“Live in a world of my own? I know I do. So? What’s bothering you? Is it Francis again?”
She sniffed. “Captain Burke can go to hell for all I care.”
“Then he won’t be joining us at Somner House?”
“He’d better not.”
This was news to me, for though she did not share a great deal with me, unlike our younger sister Jeanne, Angela had confided that the dashing Captain, hero of the war, had proposed to her last month. Angela had yet to give him an answer; had her delay rattled the Captain’s pride enough for him to withdraw his proposal and move to more receptive pastures?
Letting it go, her mulish mood curtailing conversation, I contented myself with watching my fellow passengers: families, lovers, couples, friends, and lone boarders. It was a great mixture of passengers on this mid-morning ferry crossing, always a popular time according to Kate Trevalyan. Or, I should say, Lady Kate Trevalyan.
Intrigued to meet this paragon of beauty and sophistica tion, I had hoped to learn a little more information about her, and about any others we’d be spending the wintry days with at Somner House, but my sister had been resolutely mysterious about her friends.
I couldn’t wait for our visit. A few weeks dedicated to nothing but the search for inspiration. Though in truth, wherever I went inspiration seemed to find me. During my last vacation, a simple visit to my father’s nurse had led to the now famous Victoria Bastion case. “The dead bride on the beach,” I whispered to the wind.
“What did you say?”
“Oh, nothing.” I smiled, changing the subject. “But I would like to know more about Somner House. It’s very selfish of you to keep all the details to yourself.”
Despite my rebuke, Angela refused to comply. “I don’t know,” she’d say, and shrug as I posed question after question. It annoyed me, as I sensed our trip served a particular purpose, a purpose she kept secret. It seemed she needed family support, for why else would she have asked me, her troublesome little sister, to accompany her to visit friends at Somner House? She never wanted me to have anything to do with her friends in the past.
“They’re sending a car for us,” Angela obliged upon arrival at the island, as we waited in line to disembark the ferry. “They say we’re to wait at the Three Oaks Inn … oh, look, it’s over there.”
I turned to view the hazy shoreline village. “But what of our luggage?”
“Oh, yes. I suppose we’ll need that, won’t we?”
Her mind was clearly elsewhere. I wished she would confide in me, even just a little.
Angela’s coy smile inspired the boatmen to carry our luggage across the street, leaving us to huddle under my umbrella. At least I had the good sense to bring one.
I’d never been to such a remote island during such a season. Ordinarily our trips included destinations of the obvious choices: Paris, Europe, Italy, and cruising the Mediterranean, where sunny Greek islands differed so greatly from our British ones. Yet I preferred our island to Greece’s stark white buildings and still, turquoise sea. There was something wild and ungoverned in the depths of Cornwall, an untamed coastline filled with stories of pirates and legends stretching back to King Arthur’s time.
From the grit-smattered Three Oak’s window, I first spotted the car lights flashing down the street. A reckless driver sat behind the wheel, consciously ignorant of the common townsfolk attempting to cross the street.
“It’s Max Trevalyan!” Gasping, Angela squinted beside me. “Oh dear, he almost ran over that woman! But how kind. I didn’t think he’d come to collect us personally.”
Yes, how kind indeed, and this is why half the population had paused, even in the rain, to observe the dangerous sleek red sports car with honking horn pull madly to a stop outside the inn.
“We’d best hurry,” Angela said, trying to pick up her heavy port. “He looks like he doesn’t wish to be kept waiting.”
“You’d think the lord of the manor would help us if he were truly a gentleman,” I retorted, frowning with worry since we were to be guests of this madman.
We managed to haul our heavy bags a few meters before two local fellows at the bar, smitten by Angela’s damsel in distress routine, relieved us of our burden.
“Lord, dearie, what do ye ’ave in these!” moaned one.
“Books,” I replied, smiling. “Well, books for me and shoes for my sister.”
Outside, Lord Max Trevalyan dipped his head in mock salute as the two men placed our trunks in the back of the still-running motorcar. The doors were then promptly opened and we were permitted to climb into the cramped space that was left.
Leaving Angela to join Max in the front, I crawled into the back and waved to the fishermen again, seeing that Angela had forgotten her manners in her effervescent greeting to our flagrant host.
Max Trevalyan was nothing like I had pictured him. Ten years younger than his wife, he possessed boyish good looks with his crisp curling chestnut hair, heavy brow, deep-set amber eyes, and slightly Romanic nose.
“What’s your sister’s name again?” he addressed Angela, speeding down the lane and narrowly missing a young woman about to cross the street. “Blast! You’d think these locals’d know better than to step before a speeding car.”
“Are we late for something?” I dared to say, braving Angela’s frantic glare.
“Yes!” Rapidly changing gears, Max flicked his car around a sharp right-hand bend. “I’m always late for everything. Kate’ll have my neck!”
“But you weren’t late,” Angela soothed, demonstrating little fear about his driving ability or this incessant, erratic haste. “You were exactly on time.”
“Was I?” Cursing his way past a loaded cart going “a hundred miles too slow,” Max proceeded with some degree of caution down a narrower country road leading out to the bare fields. “This is the back way,” he said to me, whipping his head to have a quick look at me.
“Your sister’s pretty,” he remarked to Angela with a laugh. “You two’ll please the boys. Poor Cousin Bella is much too drab.”
“Drab and boring, too?” Angela grinned, and I frowned at her lack of decorum.
“Intolerably drab.” Max grimaced back, switching to a higher gear.
I glimpsed little of the passing scenery, crammed in the back with the trunks, the light rain blurring the glass, and our reckless driver continuing his mad dash homeward.
“It’s not far, Daph. Can I call you Daph?”
“If you wish to, Lord Trevalyan.”
“My! She speaks well. I must remember you ladies are the daughters of Gerald du Maurier. How is your father, by the way?”
“Excellent,” I answered.
“And happy to be rid of us for a few weeks,” Angela put in.
“Then I’m glad of it,” Max returned. “And do call me Max, not Lord T. Can’t stand it. They called me ‘Firefly Max’ in the war. That’s good enough for me.”
He was the strangest fellow I had encountered in some time. Too fast for my liking, and a bit unhinged, yet I could see why Lord Max Trevalyan remained a favorite with the ladies. “Is Trevalyan Castle a ruin now, Max?”
He nodded. “Ruin? It’s a wretched eyesore. I’d have it blown up but for Rod. Rod has plans to rebuild it.” Chuckling at the ridiculous notion, he slowed down to make another turn and to add, “Rod’s my older, wiser brother except I’m the elder.
Funny that. In any case, he’s the sensible one. He manages the estate for me and all the tenants. Rod has his uses.”
Evidently so, as his madcap brother seemed the type to ruin the family’s fortunes with his irresponsible ways.
Judging from the way he drove his car, I didn’t know what to expect of his home, Somner House.
“We’re delightfully apart but close to everything,” Max went on, explaining that the house was on the far side of the island as he wound through two sets of forks in the road.
“Watch the hills. We’re nearly there.”
We flew by a village with quaint whitewashed cottages and working farms full of grazing cows gruffly mindful of the noisy racing motorcar disrupting the quiet of the day.
“Trust you brought warm clothes, girls. Can get cold out here, you know. Did get heaters, despite Rod’s grumbling about expense, but Katie and I, we’re all for comfort. Did you ever go to our flat in London, Daph? Sorry, don’t remember if you did. Know Angela came once or twice, didn’t you, Ange?”
“Yes,” Angela was quick to confirm.
Looking up ahead, I waited for a glimpse of the gates leading to Somner House. Whether visiting or touring, exploring old homes was a favorite pastime of mine. Gates always led to interesting places, a thatched hideaway, an abandoned cottage, an old abbey, a ruin by the sea … And now, Somner House. Hearing talk of Lady Kate and her connections, I pictured the house old and grand, a colonial-style mansion like one would see in Africa or India during the Empire days. But there were no gates to Somner House, just wide, open fields and a few spare leafless trees. Concealing my disappointment, I waited for some modern monster of a house to loom out of the grim bareness.
“One more corner.”
Max Trevalyan revved the gears before making a sharp right-hand turn. Angela gasped, holding on to her hat while I clung to my seat. Thick growth blurred my vision amongst a labyrinth of island trees. To my dismay, and grinning like a schoolboy, Max delighted in weaving his car through the labyrinth of thickly grown trees surrounding the estate.
“Welcome to my paradise,” he said at last, reluctantly reducing speed to clamber up the short, smooth drive to the house.
I was surprised to see a landscape bearing lush, exotic wilderness. Parts appeared to be tended—separate gardens, a hidden pergola, and an intriguing maze of beckoning paths curving beyond a manicured French lawn and garden were skillfully married into the existing terrain—but the ruggedness of the island could not be tamed.
“Ten-minute walk to the beach down that path,” he indicated.
“And the tower ruins?” I prompted, eager to conduct my own exploration.
“You can only get there via the beach. You’ll see.”
The house enchanted, too. True, it was not old, and I infinitely preferred something with a decidedly historical feel, but it was charming with its white massive proportions and Tudorish façade lending a degree of the manor house look, further adorned by several individual curved balconies and myriads of French doors and glazed windows. I was eager to learn who designed the house, but Angela sent me a glare to curb my quest for information.
Upon arrival, a slender woman wearing a red dress hastened out of the front door. Snapping open a large umbrella, she skipped down the few stairs in her high heels to greet us.
“Quick!” she laughed. “Before the storm.”
Leaving Max to unceremoniously dump our luggage inside the darkened parlor while yelling for “Hugo,” Angela and I embraced Lady Kate.
Lady Kate Trevalyan did not look thirty-five, her youthful exuberance of manner and voice masking the tiny telltale lines around her small upturned mouth and vivid blue, almond-shaped eyes. Immediately, I understood her allure. A vivacious, flirtatious beauty rather than a classical kind, she enhanced her image by way of artistry: curling ash-blond hair, painted eyes and lips, and a voluptuous figure, lovely in red chiffon. I shivered. Surely she must get cold in winter wearing such meager clothing?
“Ange, at last! I’ve been waiting an age.”
Grinning profusely, the dimple in her right cheek mesmerizing, Lady Kate took stock of us both. “And this is your sister. Finally. How do you do, Daphne? Enjoy the ride across? I’m so pleased you’ve come for the winter. It gets so deadly dull here.”
My mouth dropped open. “The whole winter?”
Vastly amused, Kate glanced at Angela. “Naughty Ange. Didn’t you tell her?”
“Tell me what? You said only a few weeks—”
“Well, you’re captive here now,” Kate laughed again, “for there’s no more boats after tomorrow evening. They can’t cross in the bad weather, you see.”
I did not see. I was seething inside, and the anger rose in my face.
“Oh dear,” Kate laughed, “whatever is the matter?”
“I-I have to be back,” I stammered.
“Whatever for? Have you made other arrangements? Your parents expect you? Friends? Commitments?”
“Not exactly but I—”
“Ah, I know what it is. You think us incapable of keeping you entertained. But you needn’t worry, for I’ve arranged a lively bunch. They are coming tomorrow, but if you want to go back on the boat, you can. It’s your choice, Daphne.”
Tapping her long beautiful fingers across her lips, Lady Kate smiled her beguiling smile, her blue eyes radiantly persuasive. “But you’ll stay. You won’t be able to resist the island or the allure of Somner House.”
The allure of Somner House.
The tempting thought carried me up a curving staircase carpeted in rich burgundy. I followed a hunchback whom Kate affectionately deemed Hugo. Kate and Angela dashed on ahead, chatting and giggling like two long-lost schoolgirls. Taking each step, I savored the landing, the breezy and very dark interior, a contrast to the white-painted veneer outside. Along the corridor, the timber- encased windows were left open, all facing downward toward the sea, and the atmosphere reminded me of a tiny, isolated inn I’d stayed a night in once on the western Cornish coast.
Pity one couldn’t see the ocean from here, as one could at Jamieson’s Inn, but the fresh salty air with its pungent spirit floated into the house, the windows opened just wide enough to prevent the rain from ruining the red carpet beneath my feet.
I saluted Lady Kate’s flair for decorating the house, her wisdom in furnishing it using the old colonial theme. Wicker chairs, open terraces, potted plants, green palms, wooden
Excerpted from Peril at Somner House by Joanna Challis
Copyright © 2010 by Joanna Challis.
Published in 2010 by St. Martin’s Press
All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.