Haunted by her scandalous past, Lavinia Hurst accepts a position as companion to young invalid Flora Meryon. But something is very wrong at Winterwood, the Meryons’ isolated estate by the sea. And when Flora suddenly becomes heiress to a large fortune, Lavinia realizes that her charge is in mortal danger.
It becomes clear that someone is determined not to let Flora live to see her inheritance. Then letters begin arriving from a dead relative. Do ghosts haunt Winterwood? Or is this the specter of living greed? Determined to thwart the deadly plan, Lavinia risks her own life to protect Flora’s, while fighting her powerful desire for Flora’s father, Daniel, a man tormented by his own demons.
Rich in atmosphere and mystery, Winterwood is Dorothy Eden at her gothic best.
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By Dorothy Eden
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1967 Dorothy Eden
All rights reserved.
From the moment of leaving the hotel the enchantment of the night had grown. The walk down the narrow streets over the humped canal bridges and through a cobbled alley that led to the opera house had been full of the strangeness and delight of Venice. By the end of the first act of the opera Lavinia was in a pleasurable trance. She wished the lights would not go up, for they would only bring her back to cold reality.
But even when the lights came on, the enchantment stayed. Leaning forward in the box, Lavinia scanned the well-dressed audience, noticing the plentiful glint of diamonds, the swaying of dark immaculate curls, the movement of a jeweled fan, the blur of faces set in the polite masks of pleasure.
It was a little time before she realized that not only was she observing but she was being observed. In the box next to her there was a family group, a tall dark-haired man, a woman with hair that was startlingly black against a delicate face and a, young girl in a simple white dress, her curls resting on childishly thin shoulders.
It was the girl who had drawn her father's attention to Lavinia. Lavinia was sure she was not intended to hear the excited whisper, "Look, Papa! Isn't she beautiful!"
She supposed she was silly and vain to find a mere child's admiration so pleasant. She had been used enough in the past to accept any kind of admiration as her due, and to be unaffected by it. But her shattering experiences had marked her more than she knew. She had great difficulty in not leaning forward and rewarding the child with a friendly smile. She did indeed glance long enough to catch the man's eyes. They were remarkably intent. Although his face was in shadow, she was sharply aware of the arrested turn of his head. His interested gaze held hers longer than she had intended.
She lifted her chin and appeared to be scrutinizing the theater beyond his head. Then she moved her fan languidly, as if quite at ease with the fact that she was attending the opera unaccompanied, except by a maid.
She knew, however, that the frail-looking woman was speaking to her husband. She must have said she was chilly, for out of the corner of her eye Lavinia saw him rise and arrange an Indian shawl about her shoulders. Then he left the box. The lights had gone down before he returned.
From then on, foolishly, Lavinia found her attention divided between the stage and the occupants of the neighboring box. She drew her own conclusions about them. The languid, languishing woman was bored with opera, but had come to show off her clothes and her jewels. The child—her age looked to be about twelve years—was enjoying her first visit to a famous theater, and was rapt with excitement. She looked delicate like her mother, and had probably been taken abroad for her health. The man had no great love for operatic music, but had come to give his wife and daughter this treat. He seemed to be an indulgent father, for he kept glancing at the girl's absorbed profile. But when his gaze wasn't on her he looked moody, sunk in thought. He had a well-shaped head with a rounded powerful forehead. It was too dark to see his features clearly but it amused Lavinia to imagine them. He would have a strong mouth with a full lower lip betokening temper and sensuality, hands that were used to controlling a horse or a willful child—or a woman. He would wear his clothes with the easy distinction of the well-bred Englishman. He would be impatient of foreigners, arrogant, sure of himself, but contrarily kind and gentle. He would be an ardent lover ...
Lavinia twitched her lips in impatience with herself for imposing on a stranger the characteristics which she admired in a man. The romantic evening was making her take leave of what good sense she had. She must concentrate on the stage, which was sufficiently absorbing.
In the next interval she determinedly leaned back out of sight of the occupants of the next box. She certainly had no intention of eavesdropping on their conversation. It just happened that it was too audible not to be heard.
The woman was speaking in a low voice with an undercurrent of weariness and dissatisfaction.
"I told you, Daniel, we can't allow her to travel until the doctor thinks her fit enough. The funeral was a great strain to her. And to me, too. I would never grow used to Venetian funerals. They seem so outlandish and barbarous, that procession of black-draped gondolas. And then the cimitèro with all that stone and marble and cypress trees."
"I must admit I found it interesting," the man answered. His voice was pleasantly deep, completely fitting Lavinia's image of him. "In spite of your aunt's copious tears."
"She's grown too Italian in her ways," his wife said disapprovingly. "I suppose it's not to be wondered at, after having an Italian husband and spending all these years in Venice. But I don't admire all that freedom of the emotions. I'm sure I would shut myself in my bedroom to weep in private."
"Which you do all too often."
"There are occasionally things to weep about"
"I suppose Mamma means me," came the little girl's high, clear belligerent voice.
"Why shouldn't I mean you, poor love?"
The man spoke with a touch of impatience. "We're at the opera. It's no place to talk of tears. Are you enjoying it, Flora?"
"Oh, yes, Papa. More than anything."
"Then let us call Aunt Tameson's illness a blessing, so that we have to stay in Venice longer than we intended."
"Yes, at least I'm not at home with that horrible Miss Brown," Flora said with satisfaction.
Her mother's voice came reprovingly.
"Miss Brown was not horrible, Flora. It was you who were. And I warn you that if you behave so badly again, Papa won't come to your help. He spoils you far too much already."
"Then it will be another week before Aunt Tameson can be moved?" Flora's father had tactfully changed the subject.
"That's what the doctor thinks. Though I've no faith in foreign doctors. I can't wait to get her home to Doctor Munro."
"Personally, I can't wait to get home to Winterwood."
The woman gave a long sigh.
"Don't be so insular, Daniel. Winterwood has been there long enough. It will still be there when we return."
It was a moment before the man spoke again. Then he said, "It was a mistake bringing Edward. The boy's out of control."
"No! You're always unfair to him. You spoil Flora, and Simon, too, but my darling Teddy is always in the wrong."
"The Continent is no place for an eight-year-old."
"I agree, Papa. He's been awful!" Flora's voice was heartfelt.
"I hope Eliza is able to listen for him," the woman said worriedly. "She wasn't very well. I warned her not to drink the water, but she did, so she deserves her indisposition. If she isn't better tomorrow, everyone will have to stay indoors all day."
"Mamma, I must go to the Piazza to feed the pigeons. Papa—"
"Now now, little one. The curtain's about to go up. Anyway, Eliza will be recovered by the morning. And I daresay the sun will be shining, and the pigeons still there."
"If Eliza isn't recovered we can never travel back to England. I simply couldn't manage without her help. I want to get back as much as you, Daniel." There was a touch of hysteria in the woman's voice. "The whole thing preys on my mind, poor Aunt Tameson failing every day, and being such a stranger to me. And then Flora behaving so badly that Miss Brown gave notice. How could you, Flora? In a foreign country!"
"I was driven to it," Flora said complacently. "Anyway, Miss Brown only wanted to go about reading her guidebook and looking at statues. She used to leave me alone for hours. I told you."
"Flora!" her father said.
"S-sh! The curtain's going up."
When the curtain had come down for the last time and the applause had died away, Lavinia intended to slip out quickly with Gianetta, not pausing, as she secretly wished to do, to stare inquisitively at the family so near to her.
She found herself, however, unable to resist a parting glance, and to her astonishment saw the man swing the child into his arms, and carry her from the box.
People made way for them as they went down the stairs, the little girl's head leaning trustingly against her father's shoulder.
Lavinia had to follow. In the foyer she saw a wheelchair brought forward by an attendant and the child placed in it. Then she was briskly wheeled away by her father, his wife in the full rich skirts, following.
The child was a cripple! How very terrible.CHAPTER 2
It was pure chance that Cousin Marion decided, the next morning, to call on an English friend who was staying at a hotel in the Accademia area. She said she would take Gianetta, and Lavinia could occupy herself in her own way. Again, as so often, Cousin Marion's decisions sounded like thoughtfulness when in reality they were nothing of the kind. She was afraid that her English friend might recognize Lavinia.
Venice—with its coverlet of sunlight over the onion domes of the Basilica of San Marco, the faded beige of the Doge's Palace, and the old old rust-colored tiles of the crowding houses; with its black gondolas drifting up the dark green water of the canals, and the flutter and whirr of alarmed pigeons when the great bell from the Campanile rang. In spite of being there in the humble position of companion to Cousin Marion, Lavinia had been enraptured by it. She had made herself bear with Cousin Marion's slights and petty humiliations. After all, she had been in no position to object to them, for what would she have done after Robin's trial if Cousin Marion had not taken her in? She had no money and no reputation.
Who wanted to employ a young woman who had been the chief witness in a murder trial, and involved in the highly questionable events of that terrible night when Robin, stripped of all his assets in one of his mad gambling sessions, had finally wagered his own sister—or rather her hand in marriage—to that revolting Justin Blake, who so badly wanted her. Justin had won and come drunkenly to Lavinia's room to claim her there and then. Fortunately Robin, sobered now by the outrageousness of his act, had followed. In the ensuing fracas Justin had fallen, cracking his head on the brass firedog, and died instantly.
The charge against Robin had been murder, later reduced to manslaughter. Even so, he had been sentenced to seven years' imprisonment, and was now in Pentonville prison. Poor unlucky Robin, shut in his squalid cell, while she was here, in lovely Venice, even though in such a humble capacity.
It didn't serve any purpose to analyze why Cousin Marion had decided to befriend Lavinia, because then one might decide that she, who had always been jealous of Lavinia's looks and popularity, might be indulging in a petty revenge. It was better to believe that she had been moved by true sympathy, and that her insistence on Lavinia's wearing inconspicuous clothes and keeping in the background was only because it would be disastrous for her to be recognized.
But even dressed as a colorless and meek companion, Lavinia had dearly looked forward to her evening at the opera. When Cousin Marion had suddenly felt unequal to going out—she suffered frequently from nervous headaches—Lavinia had been overjoyed to be told she could go if Gianetta, the Italian maid, accompanied her.
It was then that Lavinia had been seized by a mad inspiration. She couldn't bear to go to the lovely La Fenice theater in the only evening gown she now possessed, a drab blue silk of which Cousin Marion thoroughly approved.
Lavinia was only twenty-two and her recent harrowing experience had not ruined her beauty. She had been used all her life to being looked at and admired, especially since she had put her hair up and come out. She and Robin had been known as the handsome twins, not celebrated for their retiring qualities. It was Robin who had been the spendthrift and the gambler. She had been merely foolhardy.
Since the trial, however, she had wanted only to escape notice. Cousin Marion had been perfectly right in insisting that she wear colorless clothes and keep herself in the background.
But for the opera ... Alone in Cousin Marion's bedroom, Lavinia had riffled through the wardrobe and seized on a rose-pink satin. It was a beautiful dress and would fit her, Lavinia knew. For all her cosseting of herself, Cousin Marion was not the type to put on weight. She was small-waisted and as flat as a board. Lavinia would fill out the bodice better than she would. And the color would be perfect for her.
Actually, it had been less a desire to take revenge on Cousin Marion than a madness caused by the spell of the ancient city that had seized her. She must dress to suit its beauty.
If the dress, why not jewels, too?
After a moment she had decided to leave her own modest pearls unchanged, but she found the key to Cousin Marion's jewel box and took out those delectable diamond earrings, long graceful pendants that swung from tiny crescents, and had the greatest pleasure in putting them on. They had been a perfect foil for her upswept fair hair, her glowing cheeks and the gleaming rose of her gown. She believed she had never looked better.
It was foolish to let a dress, and a borrowed one at that, be so important. But it had been like coming alive again. Lavinia had called gaily for Gianetta and burst into laughter when she saw the girl's amazed face.
"But, signorina —pardon, milady—" Then her brown finger pointed in horror. "It is the Signora's gown!"
Lavinia had twirled the billowing skirts.
"Doesn't it look wonderful, Gianetta? Don't I look wonderful?"
The girl had clasped her hands in admiration.
"Ah, molto bella, molto bella!"
She knew that the man in the neighboring box at the opera had noticed her gown. It had been because of the way it had set off her looks that he had looked so long at her. She wasn't in the least sorry for her audacity, even though a long stare from a stranger in a theater could mean nothing except a temporary lift to her morale.
She was thankful, however, that Cousin Marion had not missed the gown, which had been safely returned to the wardrobe that morning. She was also delighted to have some time to herself. She meant to stroll around the Piazza, looking in the shop windows, small treasure troves whose contents were far beyond her reach, and perhaps being wildly extravagant and drinking morning chocolate at Florian's.
She didn't admit that she hoped she would see the family of last night again. The child had said something about feeding the pigeons. But who knew at what time she would do this, or if the unknown Eliza had recovered from her stomach trouble?
There were the usual small knots of sightseers in the Piazza. The predominant language was English, or perhaps that was because the English seemed to have the most carrying voices. Certainly, the gentlemen in their tweed jackets and caps, and the ladies in muslin or organdy, holding parasols to protect their delicate skins from the fierce Italian sun, looked exactly like people one would see at summer country parties at home. It was a pity, Lavinia thought, that the English sprinkled the globe so completely.
However, in spite of the familiar look of the people, the Piazza San Marco was delightfully foreign. When Lavinia had tired of her window-shopping, she allowed herself to be seated at one of the tables outside Florian's by a waiter with a seductive smile and a friendly, "Buon giorno, signorina!" And then, showing off his English, "It is a beautiful day."
Lavinia agreed that it was, and unashamedly enjoyed the waiter's admiration. He must see, by her neat prim dress, that she wasn't one of the wealthy English, yet he still paid her the tribute of devoted attention. And it was a beautiful day. Where, in England, could one see such blue skies, or be diverted by such scenes? Or indeed sit alone at a café table without undue attention being paid her? She was simply comfortably regarded as one of the mad foreigners, but a very pretty one. She was astonished to find herself feeling almost happy.
She had finished her chocolate before she saw the girl in the wheelchair. She was sitting in the middle of the Piazza surrounded by fluttering pigeons. Apart from the pigeons she seemed to be completely alone.
Excerpted from Winterwood by Dorothy Eden. Copyright © 1967 Dorothy Eden. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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