Mistress of Rossmor

Mistress of Rossmor

by Marianne Willman

Paperback(Mass Market Paperback)


Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780312981327
Publisher: St. Martin's Press
Publication date: 08/19/2002
Pages: 320
Product dimensions: 4.26(w) x 6.68(h) x 0.88(d)

Read an Excerpt

Mistress of Rossmor

By Marianne Willman

St. Martin's Press

Copyright © 2002 Marianne Willman
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-250-09984-6


ROME 1880

Alistair McLean stood on the Palatine Hill above the Forum Romanum, beneath a brilliant lapis sky. He took off his hat and ran his fingers through thick dark hair.

If any place in Rome is haunted, it should be here, he thought.

Amid the city's domed churches and palaces and spouting fountains, the Forum was a wild and silent island of green overgrowth and shattered stone. Broken columns protruded like elegant bones through the weed-choked expanse and trees sprouted from the roofs of half-buried temples. An air of brooding melancholy hung over what had once been the beating heart of the vast Roman Empire. The ancient splendor was reduced to rubble, all the blood and glory scoured away by time.

In the proper season the site was full of British and American tourists bent on "improving" themselves, by ticking off all the "sights to be seen" as if they were items on a shopping list. But not in the brazen heat of August. Anyone with a particle of sense and the means to do so had fled the city for the coolness of the surrounding hills.

He'd purposely tried for a day and time when the Forum would be thin of visitors, in order to immerse himself in the atmosphere. It appeared that he'd chosen wisely: thus far he'd seen only one cassocked priest talking to a friar, and two small boys romping with their pup in the distance.

They were long gone and the circumstances should have been ideal. But the indefinable something he sought eluded McLean. He felt no sense of the history of the place. It was merely acres of neglected, wildly overgrown ruins, ringed by the seven hills of Rome.

Perhaps he was concentrating too much. Perhaps he should try to think of nothing at all ...

There was movement below and he frowned. A slender young woman in crisp white and navy stood amid the ruins of the House of the Vestals, guidebook in hand. The straw bonnet that hid most of her dark hair was outmoded, but set at a precise angle and tied with a neat bow.

She came gliding over the weedy, uneven paving stones as if she were in a London drawing room. She was English — no doubt of that — and as completely out of place among the ruins of imperial glory as a tea cozy in a barracks.

McLean was chagrined. He knew her type: earnest and sincere and completely lacking in imagination. He folded his arms and leaned back against the wall, wishing she would go away soon. But no, Englishwomen of her ilk never did. Not until she'd seen every stone and column and inscription that she intended to see. She would dutifully examine each temple and arch, tut-tut over the wicked deeds of the past, read a page from her guidebook — and then go on dutifully to the next item listed under some fusty heading such as "Noteworthy Places to Be Seen by the Cultured Traveler While in London."

Except that she didn't go on at all.

She stopped so suddenly it looked as if she'd run into a solid wall. McLean drew in a sharp breath, and tried to suppress a sudden surge of excitement. He'd seen that same expression on another face many times. It was a look that, seen even once, could never be forgotten.

Shifting his weight, he watched her intently. For five years he had been trying to unlock the truth of the tragedy that bedeviled him. Could this slender, dark-haired young woman hold the key?

He frowned as her eyes went wide with bewilderment and dawning terror. He was already starting down toward the floor of the Forum, when her face went white and she raised her hand in a gesture of fear.

* * *

Grace Templar thought she was alone in the forum. She stood in the molten afternoon light and drank in the view. It was heady as wine. This was her first visit abroad, and the excitement of seeing a place she'd only read about in history books filled her.

Just past the church of Santa Francesca Romana, the empty tiers of the Colosseum rose against a sky so deep and limitless a blue it seemed unreal.

It seems almost as unreal that I am actually here!

Six weeks earlier she'd answered an advertisement for the position of companion, secretary, and chaperone for an American widow and her aspiring debutante daughter, imagining it would be her ticket to adventure. Thus far her hopes had been disappointed.

Neither Mrs. Bingley nor sixteen-year-old Miss Eliza Bingley had any interest in historic places, unless they came with an eligible nobleman — preferably an earl — attached.

Mrs. Bingley was an ambitious woman. She knew that it was easier to breach the ranks of the ton abroad, than in the stricter confines of a London Season. She hadn't realized, however, that the Roman aristocracy and titled tourists who were her intended prey would have fled the August heat for cool villas in the hills outside Rome. It would be September before they trickled back.

Temporarily thwarted in their ambitions, the mother and daughter spent most of their time within the walls of the villa they'd taken on three months' hire, looking at fashion plates. Their excursions were chiefly to the fashionable shops where — despite Grace's best attempts to dissuade them — they ordered expensive gowns and capes and bonnets, most of which only a courtesan would wear.

Yet here I am, at last! Grace thought.

At the present moment, the Bingleys were taking lunch at a hotel with English acquaintances whom they would scarcely have deigned to recognize under other circumstances, and Grace had the afternoon free. She was delighted to escape her difficult employer and bored pupil for a few precious hours of peace.

She descended to the weed-strewn floor of the Forum. The sun was a brass hammer, but a shiver ran through Grace the instant her slippers touched the stone. She was totally unprepared for the vast, desolate grandeur of the ruins. As she proceeded along the ancient Via Sacra, Grace felt a ripple of unease.

Two goats chewed wildflowers where Roman senators had gathered in their purple-hemmed togas. Feral cats sunned themselves on the remains of the Rostra, where the greatest orators of the empire had once held forth.

Perhaps in the far future, she thought, visitors to England may find cows grazing near the ruins of St. Paul, or tourists sketching a heap of stones that were once the Tower of London.

The fanciful image unsettled her. Shaking off its effects, she wandered along examining the three columns and raised dais that were the remains of Vespasian's Temple. She tried to imagine how it had looked in its heyday with marble façades gleaming in the sun and the whole of it bustling with thousands of people.

She was touched with ineffable sadness. It rustled in the heavy air around her, gathering in upon itself. Grace hesitated, then came to a full stop. She felt the weight of centuries pressing down upon her like stones. The sensation grew with every passing second.

Panic knifed through her. She forced herself to move down the Sacred Way. Suddenly her skin prickled and her hair rose at her nape. Another tremor shook her, followed by a bright pang of alarm.

Oh, no! I should not have come here!

Even as she thought it, it was too late.

The phantom scents came first, as always. They swirled around her in an invisible current. Garlic and spices and roasting sausages ... exotic perfumes and burning oil ... wood smoke and incense ... animal dung and human sweat ...

She tried to turn and run away. Her feet refused to move. They were as firmly rooted as the trees and shrubs sprouting between the cracks in the tilted pavement.

"No ... no!" The cry was ripped from deep within her, but came out through her clenched teeth as a stifled moan.

Sounds filtered through her veil of fear. The faint strum of a stringed instrument ... the approach of booted feet ... then a murmur of masculine voices, growing ever louder, like the brash thunder of a breaking wave against the stony shore of her resistance.

While she struggled against an overwhelming panic, other images imposed themselves over the ruins. Monuments and noble buildings shimmering miragelike, where before there had been open sky. They took on increased solidity and light reflected from their polished travertine surfaces.

All around her she felt the presence of a bustling but yet invisible mass of humanity. Shapes grew out of the sunlight, like images of smoke. They grew denser, more real. Took on the pale, wavery tones of a watercolor wash ...

A solemn procession ... the grief-stricken wails of the crowd that thronged the way ... the stern soldiers and priests ... and then a young woman, weak and almost fainting with terror in the back of a cart, her heart-shaped face horror-stuck and gray beneath her white veil.

She had slipped away to meet her lover, broken her vow of chastity. That would have been sin enough. But she had let the sacred Vestal fire die out in her absence, putting Rome in danger. It was treason of the gravest sort.

And now she must pay the terrible price ...

Grace felt her lungs constrict. No! She fought to draw in a racking breath, and struggled for control. I must stay calm. I must concentrate on the present ...

She tried not to think of the frightened young girl being taken away to her death. She grounded herself in the here and now, immersed herself in detail. The heavy heat of the day. The curlicue pattern of yellow lichen encrusting a broken step and the half-buried remains of a fallen lintel. The film of light perspiration on her forehead and the prickle of it between her breasts. The tautness of the blue grosgrain ribbon beneath her chin.

It took every bit of willpower she possessed, but Grace succeeded. The scents and sounds faded, the images grew dim and winked out. The Forum Romanum was empty and in ruins once more, the shades of those long dead laid to rest.

Relief mingled with trembling reaction as her pounding pulse eased. She touched her temple. There was just the subtlest aura remaining. The slightest tug toward the past.

Dear God! It had been years since she'd received an impression so sudden. So strong! I must leave, at once.

She turned quickly, intending to go back the way she had come. She heard an odd sound as if a door had closed somewhere nearby, with a doleful clang. An instant later a dark bird rose up almost beside her in a great clap of wings. Grace recoiled as the air of its passing stirred the bow beneath her jaw.

This time there was no warning. She was flung back into the swift-flowing river of time. Her vision dimmed, then returned with unnatural clarity.

She looked out through someone else's eyes. She was in a dark, enclosed space, alone. A small irregular rectangle of glorious sky showed overhead, blue as a sapphire. Suddenly a dark shape flew up against it, blotting the brightness.

A bird, she thought, as her heart skipped in panic.

But it wasn't a bird. It was a hand holding a stone. It settled into place, blotting out the living light, filling the final chink in the roof of her tomb.

She was buried alive.

Grace stood in golden sunlight with her eyes wide and sightless as her world went black.

The guidebook fell from her hand and went sliding across the ancient stones.

* * *

Alistair McLean was half-way down when he saw Grace sway. He clambered over a wall of stone and leapt down to the Forum floor. A bird startled up from the grass and arrowed past him. The young woman recoiled in alarm, then went rigid. The guidebook fell from her immaculately gloved hand.

The next thing he knew, she dropped like a stone.

Although he sprinted across, he wasn't in time to catch her before she hit the pavement with a sickening thud. He knelt beside her. The force of the blow had knocked her bonnet askew. Witch-black curls tumbled loose around her white face. He touched her throat and was relieved to feel her pulse.

"A miracle she wasn't killed," he said beneath his breath.

At the sound of his voice, she stirred and gave a little moan. Her eyes fluttered open. They were thickly lashed and like no color he'd ever seen before: deep green lit with gold, and just the faintest hint of umber, like warm summer days blending into autumn. Then he saw a trickle of blood angling down from beneath the brim of her crushed bonnet.

"Don't move," he ordered. "I cannot tell the extent of your injuries yet."

Grace looked up into the handsome face of a total stranger. She noted the deep cleft in his chin and eyes as intensely blue as the Roman sky. They looked familiar, yet she didn't think she knew him.

"What ... what happened? ... Where am I?"

He frowned down at her. "Don't you remember?"

She shook her head and winced.

"You are amid the ruins of the old Forum. You fainted and hit your head."

Grace bit her lip. "I can't recall anything ..."

"That is not uncommon after a blow such as you sustained. Hold still a moment and let me examine you."

Lifting her hair carefully away, he discovered a graze along her temple, ending in a small crescent-shaped gash. He wadded up his handkerchief and pressed it in place gently. "You've a nasty cut, but it shouldn't scar."

"That is the least of my problems at the moment." Cold sweat beaded above her bloodless lips. She thought she was going to be sick, but the feeling passed.

Grace struggled to rise.

"Wait! Can you move your legs?"

"Yes." She wiggled her feet, then blinked a few times as her vision blurred. She sat up so abruptly that the last tinge of color drained from her face. "If you would please be so good as to help me to my feet ..."

"Don't be hasty," he said. "I'm afraid that you hit your head rather hard. You may have a concussion — or worse."

Her unusual eyes regarded him with confused alarm. McLean wished he'd been a little less abrupt. "It's merely a precaution," he told her.

"An unnecessary one. I am quite ... quite well, I assure you. Thank you for your concern, sir, however I believe the only injury I've suffered is to my dignity."

"Your dignity be damned," he said, and lifted her up in his arms. She was obviously in shock and her teeth were chattering. "Where is the rest of your party?"

"I ... I don't know. I ... I think I came alone."

"The devil you say!" He thought quickly. "I'll take you to them. At what hotel are you staying?" he asked more gently.

Grace fumbled among her jumbled thoughts and dragged out a name. "Claridge's?"

McLean swore beneath his breath. "My dear girl, you are not in London, you are in Rome. I think it would be best to get you out of the hot sun." He lifted her with ease and stood her on her feet, but kept his arm about her for support. "Can you walk?"

Her head ached and she felt dizzy, but Grace wanted to leave this place immediately. "Yes," she lied. "Really, I feel quite well."

"You surprise me. That was quite a knock you took. Do you think it was the heat that made you swoon?"

"I never swoon," she told him a little sharply.

"You gave a damned good imitation of it, then. What made you fall? Were you startled when the bird flew up?"

Her pupils went wide and she surprised him yet again.

Instead of answering, she fainted.

There wasn't another soul around to offer assistance. McLean cursed beneath his breath, for all the good it did him: he was left standing in the shimmering heat of a Roman afternoon, with an unconscious woman in his arms.


McLean lifted the crystal decanter in his hotel suite, poured himself out a stiff drink, and downed it. This is the devil of a coil!

The young woman had come round in the carriage — long enough for him to get her up to his suite — but her thoughts were disordered. She couldn't even tell him her name. There was no doubt at all that she suffered from concussion.

It would have gone against his principles but McLean was almost regretting that he hadn't taken her to the nearest hospital charity ward and washed his hands of the entire affair. Instead she was in his bedchamber with the curtains drawn and a cold compress upon her head.

The doctor, a thin elegant man, exited the bedroom of McLean's hotel suite, beaming. "A touch of sun and a few scrapes and bruises only. La signora will recover completely."

"Thank God!" Relief flooded through McLean. He'd feared her injury was more serious. He didn't bother to correct the man's assumption that the woman ensconced in his bed was his wife.

"She came round again as I was examining her."


Excerpted from Mistress of Rossmor by Marianne Willman. Copyright © 2002 Marianne Willman. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Mistress of Rossmor 3.5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 2 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This is the first book I've read of Ms. Willman's and was not very impressed. I found the part of the hero, Alistair, lacking. The piece appeared very one sided with very little insight into his thoughts and character. If this is an example of her writing, I'm surprised she is an award winner. She does not seem to be in the same sphere as a majority of top novelists in this genre. The basis of the story is very intriguing. But I felt more detail into the main characters would've enhanced the piece tremendously. One major character in the end, was almost completely overlooked in the entire piece. A good mystery, even romantic in nature, should lead the reader to the ending or at the very least speculation. That is not the case in this story making me feel as if the story was rushed to publishing and incomplete. Whether this is a result of the publisher or the author is mote do to the end result, a less then satisfying novel.
Guest More than 1 year ago
There is a very gothic flavor to the Mistress of Rossmor. Ms. Willman kept me turning pages. I enjoyed the story immensely. I loved the mystery and romance between Grace and Alistair. I thought that the paranormal theme was interesting. However, I felt that the ending lacked something. I thought that the ghost story itself could've been explored more fully. Overall, I liked it and will definitely recommend it to others.