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As Allie came down the broad curving staircase, she paused for a moment to look at the view from the big casement window on the half-landing.
There was nothing new to see. Just the grounds of Marchington Hall in all their formal splendour, unfolding over immaculately kept lawns down to the gleam of the lake in the distance. To her right, she could just glimpse the mellow brick walls of the Fountain Court, while to the left dark green cypresses sheltered the Italian Garden.
But on a day like this, when the air seemed to sparkle after the rain in the night, the vista made her heart lift. It even made her feel that being forced to deal with all the petty restrictions and irritations of life at the Hall might be worth it, after all.
Worth it for Tom's sake anyway, she thought. I have to believe that. I must. Because there is nothing else
Her throat tightened suddenly, uncontrollably, and she made to turn away. As she did so, she caught sight of her own reflection, and paused again. She looked like a ghost, she thought soberly. A pale, hollow-eyed, fair-haired phantom, without life or substance. And as tense as if she was stretched on wire.
Part of that, of course, was down to last night's storm. Part, but not all.
Because it also had to do with the ongoing battle over the upbringing of her fourteen-month-old son, which, in spite of her best efforts, seemed to be turning into a war of attrition.
She'd just been to visit him in his nursery, to make sure that he hadn't been woken by the thunder, but had been faced by the usual confrontation with Nanny, looking disapproving over this disruption to Tom's routine.
'He's having his breakfast, Lady Marchington.'
'I'maware of that,' Allie had returned, counting to ten under her breath. 'In fact, I'd like to help feed him. I've said so many times.'
'We prefer to have as few distractions at mealtimes as possible,' Nanny returned with regal finality.
And if I had the guts of a worm, Allie thought grimly, I'd stand up to the boot-faced old bag.
But behind Nanny's portly and commanding frame, she knew, stood the outwardly frail figure of Grace, the Dowager Lady Marchington, her mother-in-law, known irreverently in the village as the Tungsten Tartar.
Any overt clash with Nanny led straight to 'an atmosphere' in the nursery, and also resulted in Allie becoming the target of the elder Lady Marchington's icy displeasure. An experience to be avoided.
Anything for a quiet life, she'd told herself as she'd left the nursery, closing the door behind her. And, my God, was this ever a quiet life.
She supposed that for Tom's sake she wouldn't have it any other way. He was Hugo's heir, she reminded herself stonily, so she should have known what to expect.
Besides, on the surface at least, the Hall had all the necessary elements to supply him with an idyllic childhood.
But I'd just like to be able to enjoy it with him, she thought rebelliously. Without Nanny standing guard as if I was a potential kidnapper instead of his mother.
He said his first word to her, not me. And it wasn't Mama either, which hurt. And I missed the moment he took his first step, too. It's as if I don't feature in the scheme of things at all. I gave him birth, and now I'm being sidelined. It's a ludicrous situation to be in.
Most of her friends were young marrieds, struggling to cope with child-rearing alongside the demands of their careers. They must think that, apart from the tragedy of being widowed at twenty-one, she'd pretty much fallen on her feet.
After all, she had a large house to live in, a staff to run it, and no money or childcare problems.
Besides, some of them clearly thought that the premature end of her marriage was a blessing in disguise too, although they never said so openly.
And if they did, Allie thought, sighing, could I really deny it?
She walked slowly across the hall and, drawing a deep breath, entered the dining room. Grace Marchington was seated at the head of the tablealthough 'enthroned' might be a better description, Allie thought as she fielded the disparaging glance aimed at her denim skirt and white cheesecloth blouse, closely followed, as usual, by the glance at the watchjust pointed enough to be noticeable.
'Good morning, Alice. Did you sleep well?' She didn't wait for an answer, but picked up the small brass bell beside her place and rang it sharply. 'I'll ask Mrs Windom to bring some fresh toast.'
Allie took her seat and poured herself some coffee. 'I'm sorry if I'm late. I popped in to see Tom on my way down.'
'Not a terribly convenient time, my dear, as I think Nanny has mentioned to you.'
'Oh, yes,' Allie said. 'She has.' She fortified herself with some coffee. 'So, perhaps she could suggest when it would be more appropriate for me to visit my own son. Because somehow I always seem to get it wrong.'
Lady Marchington replaced her cup in its saucer in a measured way. 'I'm not sure I understand you, Alice.'
Allie took a breath. 'I'd like to see Tom first thing in the morning without it being regarded as an unreasonable request. In fact, I'd love to be there when he wakes up, so that I can sort out his clothes and bath him, and then give him his breakfast. That's surely not too much to ask.'
Are you implying that Nanny is incapable in some way of supplying Tom's needs? May I remind you that she was entrusted with the care of Hugo as soon as he was born.'
'I do realise that, yes,' Allie said wearily. I've never been allowed to forget it.
'And I'm sure you also recall that there was a time, after Tom's birth, when Nanny's presence became indispensable?'
The dagger between the ribs
'Yes, I had postnatal depression for a while.' Allie kept her tone even. 'But I got over it.'
'Did you, my dear? Sometimes I wonder.' Her mother-in-law gave her a sad smile. 'Of course, you are still grieving for our beloved boy, which may account for the mood swings I sometimes detect. But I'm sure Dr Lennard would be happy to recommend someonea specialist who could help you over this difficult period in your life.'
Allie's lips tightened. 'You think that wanting to look after my small child means I need a psychiatrist?'
Lady Marchington looked almost shocked. 'There are many different levels of therapy, Alice. And it was only a suggestion, after all.'
As if signifying that the matter was closed, she turned her attention to the pile of post which had been placed beside her, as it was every morning. And, as she did so, Allie suddenly spotted the pale blue envelope with the French stamp, halfway down, and stifled a small gasp.
A letter from Tante Madelon, she thought, and felt the hair stand up on the back of her neck. Was that the real reason for last night's dream, and not the storm at all? Why she'd heard all over again the sibilant rush of the incoming tide and the thunder of the pursuing hoofbeats? Because somehow she'd sensed that all the memories of Brittany she'd tried so hard to bury were about to be revived?
Her heart was thumping against her ribs, but she knew there was no point in claiming the letter. That wasn't the way the system worked. All the mail delivered to the Hall came to Grace first, to be scrutinised before it was handed out to staff and family alike.
And if she thought you were taking an undue interest in any item, she was quite capable of taking the day's post to her private sitting room and letting you seethe quietly for half a day, or even twenty-four hours, before handing it over with the mellifluous words, 'I think this must be for you.'
'It's madness,'Allie had once told Hugo heatedly. 'Your mother is the ultimate control freak. Why don't you say something?'
But he'd only looked at her, brows raised in haughty surprise. 'Mother's always dealt with the mail. My father preferred it, and I don't see it as a problem.'
But then Hugo had seen very little as a problem, apart from the utter necessity of providing a son and heir for his beloved estate. That, in the end, had been the driving force the obsession in his ruined life. Two ruined lives, if she counted her own, and she tried hard not to do that. Bitterness, after all, was futile, and damaged no one but herself. Regret, too, altered nothing.
But was she still mourning her late husband, as her mother-in-law had suggested? In her innermost heart, she doubted that. The suddenness of his death had certainly been an acute shock, but she suspected her reaction was largely triggered by guilt because she'd never really loved him.
For a long time she'd felt numbtoo emotionally paralysed even to feel relief that the nightmare of their marriage had endedbut that had been over and done with long ago.
Slowly and carefully, she'd begun to find herself again, and somehow she had to move on from thatto regain the here and now, and stop allowing Grace to treat her as some kind of ciphereven if it did end with blood on the carpet.
How to go about it, of course, was not so clear, she told herself ironically. Because her mother-in-law seemed to hold all the winning cards.
In those tragic crowded weeks after Hugo had died with such shocking suddenness and Tom had been born, Allie herself had temporarily descended into some bleak, dark limbo.
It was then that Grace Marchington had effortlessly reas-sumed the role of mistress of the house. In fact, Allie could see, looking back, that she'd never really been away.
I was just the temporary usurper who gave Hugo the son he'd craved, she thought. And after that I was supposed to retire into well-deserved obscurity, while Grace and Nanny pursued the task of turning Tom into a tintype of Marchington Man.
But that's not going to happen, because I won't let it.
She realised, however, that she needed to conserve her energies for the battles she had to winand Grace being anally retentive over a bunch of letters was not the most important. A minor irritation at best.
So, for the time being, she sat and ate the toast that Mrs Windom had brought, and never gave a second glance at the mail that Grace was examining with such torturous slowness. It might only be a small victory, but it counted.
She looked instead at the picture on the wall in front of her. It was a portrait of Hugo that his mother had commissioned for his twenty-fifth birthday, two years before the accident. Lady Marchington had not been altogether satisfied with the result, saying it was a poor likeness. But Allie wasn't so sure about that. The artist had given Hugo credit for his undoubted good looks, but also hinted at a slight fleshiness about the jaw, and a peevish line to the mouth. Nor had he made any attempt to conceal that the crisply cut dark hair was already beginning to recede.
It was Hugo, she thought, as he would have become if his life had taken a different path. If there'd been more time
And suddenly superimposed on it, she realised, her heart bumping, was another facethinner, swarthier, with a beak of a nose and heavy-lidded eyes, as blue and cold as the sea. And a voice in her head whispered a name that she'd tried hard to forgetRemy...
'This seems to be yours, Alice.'
She started violently as she realised that Lady Marchington, lips faintly pursed, was holding out the blue envelope.
'I presume it's from your French great-aunt,' the older woman added. 'I hope it isn't bad news.'
'I hope so too,' Allie said lightly, ignoring the hint that she should open it instantly and divulge the contents. 'But at least she's alive.'
She heard the hiss of indrawn breath, and braced herself for a chilling rebuke over inappropriate levity, but instead the dining room door opened to admit the housekeeper.
'Excuse me, your ladyship, but Mrs Farlow is asking to speak to you on the telephone. A problem with the Garden Club accounts.'
'I'll come.' Lady Marchington rose with an expression on her face that boded ill for the unfortunate Club treasurer. And for Allie, too, if she was still around when her mother-in-law returned.
As soon as she was alone, Allie went quickly across to the French windows and let herself out on to the terrace. A few minutes later she was pushing open the wrought-iron gate into the Fountain Court. It was one of her favourite places, with its gravelled paths, the raised beds planted with roses, just coming into flower, and the tall, cascading centrepiece of ferocious tritons and swooning nymphs from which it took its name.
It was an odd thing to find at an English country house, she had to admit, but it had been designed and installed by a much earlier Sir Hugo, who'd fallen in love with Italy while on the Grand Tour, and had wanted a permanent memento of his travels.
Allie loved the fountain for its sheer exuberance, and for the cool, soothing splash of its water which made even the hottest day seem restful. She sat on one of the stone benches and opened Tante's letter. She read it through swiftly, then, frowning, went back to the beginning, absorbing its contents with greater care.
It was not, in fact, good news. The writing was wavery, and not always easy to decipher, but the gist of it was that all was far from well with her great-aunt.
It seems that this will be my last summer at Les Sables d'Ignac. However, I have had a good life here, and I regret only that so long has passed since we were together. You remind me so much of my beloved sister, and it would make me truly happy to see you again, my dearest child. I hope with all my heart that you can spare me a little time from your busy life to visit me. Please, my dear Alys, come to me, and bring your little boy with you also. As he is the last of the Vaillac blood, I so long to see him.
My God, Allie thought, appalled. What on earth could be wrong with her? Tante Madelon had always given the impression that she was in the most robust of health. But then she hadn't seen her for almost two yearsand that was indeed a long time.
She realised, of course, that her great-aunt must be in her late seventies, although her looks and vigour had always belied her age. In fact, to Allie she'd always seemed immortal, only the silvering of her hair marking the inevitable passage of time.