"Well, I suppose that settles it. Either we all go home to
England for Christmas or we hurl ourselves into Lake Como to
atone for our sins."
I threw my elder brother a
repressive look. "Do not be so morose, Plum. Fathers only
really angry with Lysander," I pointed out, brandishing the
letter from England with my fingertips. The paper fairly
scorched my skin. Fathers temper was a force of nature.
Unable to rant at Lysander directly, he had applied himself
to written chastisement with great vigour.
of us can go home easily enough," I said. "Just think of
itâ€”Christmas in England! Plum pudding and snapdragon,
mistletoe and wassailâ€”"
"Chilblains and damp beds,
fogs so thick you cannot set foot out of doors," Plum put
in, his expression sour. "Someone sobbing in the linen
cupboard, Father locking himself in the study after
threatening to drown the lot of us in the moat."
know," I said, my excitement rising. "Won't it be
Plum's face cracked into a thin, wistful
smile. "It will, actually. I have rather missed the old
pileâ€”and the family, as well. But I shall be sorry to leave
Italy. It has been an adventure I shall not soon
On that point we were in complete agreement.
Italy had been a balm to me, soothing and stimulating at
once. I had joined two of my brothers, Lysander and
Eglamourâ€”Plum to the familyâ€”after suffering the loss of my
husband and later my home, and very nearly my own life. I
had arrived in Italy with my health almost broken and my
spirit in a sorrier state. Four months in a warm, sunny
clime with the company of my brothers had restored me. And
though the weather had lately grown chill and the seasons
were turning inward, I had no wish to leave Italy yet.
Still, the lure of family and home, particularly at
Christmas, was strong.
"Well, who is to say we must
return permanently? Italy shall always be here. We can go to
England for Christmas and still be back in Venice in time
Plum's smile deepened. "That is
terribly cunning of you, Julia. I think living among
Italians has developed a latent talent in you for
It was a jest, but the barb struck too
close to home, and I lowered my head over my needlework. I
had engaged in an intrigue in England although I
had never discussed it with my brothers. There had been an
investigation into my husbands death, a private
investigation conducted by an inquiry agent. I had assisted
him and unmasked the killer myself. It had been dangerous,
nasty work, and I told myself I was happy to be done with
But even as I plunged my needle into the canvas,
trailing a train of luscious scarlet silk behind it, I felt
a pang of regretâ€”regret that my days were occupied with
nothing more purposeful than those of any other lady of
society. I had had a glimpse of what it meant to be useful,
and it stung now to be merely decorative. I longed for
something more important than the embroidering of cushions
or the pouring of tea to sustain me.
Of my other
regrets, I would not let myself think. I yanked at the
needle, snarling the thread.
"Blast," I muttered,
rummaging in my work basket for my scissors.
a deceptively domestic pair," Plum said suddenly.
snapped the threads loose and peered at him. "Whatever do
He waved a hand. "This lovely villa, the
fireside, both of us in slippers. I, reading my paper from
England whilst you ply your needle. We might be any couple,
by any fireside, placidly whiling away the darkening hours
of an autumn eve."
I glanced about. The rented villa
was comfortably, even luxuriously appointed. The long
windows of the drawing room overlooked Lake Como, although
the heavy velvet draperies had long since been drawn against
the gathering dark. "I suppose, butâ€”"
What I had been
about to say next was lost. Morag, my maid, entered the
drawing room to announce a visitor.
"The Count of
I gave her an evil look and tossed
my needlework aside. Plum dashed his newspaper to the floor
and jumped to his feet.
"Alessandro!" he cried. "You
are a welcome sight! We did not expect you until
Morag did not move, and our visitor
stepped neatly around her, doffing his hat and cape. They
were speckled with raindrops that glittered in the
firelight. He held them out to Morag who looked at him as
though he had just offered her a dead animal. I rushed to
"Alessandro, how lovely to see you." I
thrust the cape and hat at Morag. "Take these and brush them
well," I instructed. "And his name is Fornacci," I
hissed at her.
She gave me a shrug and a curl of the
lip and departed, dragging the tail of Alessandro's
beautiful coat on the marble floor as she went.
turned to him, smiling brightly. "Do come in and get warm by
the fire. It has turned beastly out there and you must be
chilled to the bone."
He gave me a look rich with
gratitude, and something rather more as well. Plum and I
bustled about, plumping cushions and making him comfortable
with a chair by the fire and a glass of good Irish whiskey.
Alessandro had never tasted whiskey until making the
acquaintance of my brothers, but had become something of a
connoisseur in the months he had known them. To begin with,
he no longer made the mistake of tossing his head back and
drinking the entire glass at one gulp.
After a few
minutes by the fire he had thawed sufficiently to speak. "It
is so good to see you again," he said, careful to look at
Plum as well as myself when he spoke. "I am very much
looking forward to spending Christmas with you here." His
English was terribly fluent, very much better than my
Italian, but there was a formality that lingered in his
speech. I found it charming.
Plum, who had poured
himself a steady glass of spirits, took a deep draught. "I
am afraid there has been a change in plans, old
"Old man" was his favourite nickname for
Alessandro, no doubt for its incongruity. Alessandro was
younger than either of us by some years.
man's face clouded a little and he looked from Plum to me,
his silky dark brows knitting in concern. "I am not invited
for Christmas? Shall I return to Firenze then?"
slapped Plum lightly on the knee. "Don't be vile. You have
made Alessandro feel unwelcome." It had been arranged that
Alessandro would come to us in November, and we would all
spend the holiday together before making a leisurely journey
to Venice in time for Carnevale. There was no hope of such a
scheme now. I turned to Alessandro, admiring for a moment
the way the firelight licked at his hair. I had thought it
black, but his curls shone amber and copper in their depths.
I wondered how difficult it would be to persuade Plum to
"You see, Alessandro," I explained, "we
have received a letter from our father, the Earl March. He
is displeased with our brother Lysander and wishes us all to
return to England at once. We shall spend Christmas
"Ah. How can one argue with the call of
family? If you must return, my friends, you must return. But
know that you will always carry with you the highest regard
of Alessandro Fornacci."
This handsome speech was
accompanied by a courtly little bow from the neck and a
noble, if pained, expression that would have done a Caesar
"I have a better idea, and a very good notion
it is," Plum said slowly. "What if we bring Alessandro with
I had just taken a sip of my own whiskey and I
choked lightly. "I beg your pardon, Plum?"
raised his hands in a gesture I had seen many Italians
employ, as if warding something off. "No, my friend, I must
not. If your father is truly angry, he will not welcome an
intruder at this time."
"Are you mad? This is
precisely the time to bring someone outside the family into
the fold. It will keep him from killing Lysander outright.
He will behave himself if we cart you back to England with
us. The old man has peculiar ideas, but he is appallingly
"Plum, kindly do not refer to Father as
'the old man'. It is disrespectful," I
Alessandro was shaking his head. "But I
have not been invited. It would be a great
"It would be a far greater discourtesy
for Father to kill his own son," Plum pointed out tartly.
"And you have been invited. By us. Now I must warn you, the
family seat is rather old-fashioned. Father doesn't hold
with new ideas, at least not for country houses. You'll find
no steam heat or even gaslights. I'm afraid it's all coal
fires and candles, but it really is a rather special old
place. You always said you wanted to see England, and
Bellmont Abbey is as English as it gets, dear
Alessandro hesitated. "If I may be so bold, why
is his lordship so angry with Lysander? Surely it is
"It is," Plum and I chorused.
that moment, sounds of a quarrel began to echo from
upstairs. There was a shout and the unmistakable crash of
"But the earl, he cannot object to
Lysander's marriage to so noble and lovely a lady as
Violante," Alessandro put in, quite diplomatically I
Something landed with a great thud on the
floor, shivering the ceiling and causing the chandelier
above our heads to sway gently.
"Do you suppose that
was one of them?" Plum inquired lightly.
If it was, we shall have to deal with the body," I reminded
him. Violante began to shriek, punctuating her words with
tiny stamps of her heel from the sound of it.
wonder what she is calling him. It cannot be very nice," I
Alessandro gave an elegant shrug. "I regret,
my understanding of Napolitana, it is imperfect." He dropped
his eyes, and I wondered if he understood more than
politeness would allow him to admit.
the best," Plum remarked, draining the last of his
"Do not finish off the decanter," I warned
him. "Lysander will want a glass or two when they have
finished for the evening."
"Or seven," Plum countered
with a twitch of his lip. I gave him a disapproving look.
Lysander's marital woes were not a source of amusement to
me. I had endured enough of my own connubial difficulties to
be sympathetic. Plum, however, wore a bachelors
indifference. He had never said so, but I suspected his
favourite brothers defection to the married state had
rankled him. They had travelled the Continent together for
years, roaming wherever their interests and their
acquaintance had directed them, exploring museums and opera
houses and ruined castles. They wrote poetry and concertos
and painted murals on the walls of ancient abbeys. They had
been the staunchest companions until Lysander, having left
his thirtieth birthday some years past, had spotted Violante
sitting serenely in her uncles box at La Fenice. It was, as
the Tuscans say, un colpo difulmine, a bolt of
It was also a bit misleading. Upon further
investigation, Lysander discovered Violante was Neapolitan,
not Venetian, and there was quite simply nothing about her
that was serene. She carried in her blood all the warmth and
passion and raw-boned energy of her native city Violante
was Naples, and for a cool-blooded, cool-headed
Englishman like Lysander the effect was intoxicating. He
married her within a month, and presented Plum and me with
a fait accompli, a sister-in-law who smothered us
in kisses and heady jasmine perfumes. For my part, I found
her charming, wholly unaffected if somewhat exhausting.
Plum, on the other hand, was perfectly cordial and cordially
perfect. Whenever Violante stepped from a carriage or
shivered from the cold, Plum would offer her a hand or his
greatcoat, bowing and murmuring a graciously phrased
response to her effusive thanks. And yet always he watched
her with the cool detachment one usually reserves for
specimens at the zoological garden. I often thought there
might be real fondness there if he could unbend a little and
forgive her for coming so precipitously into our
But Plum was nothing if not stubborn, and I
knew a straightforward approach would only cause him to dig
his heels into the ground like a recalcitrant pony. So I
endeavoured to distract him with little whims and treats,
cajoling him into good temper in spite of
And then we met Alessandro, or to be
accurate, I met Alessandro, for he was a friend of
my brothers of some years' duration. Rome had been too hot,
too noisy, altogether too much for my delicate state when I
first arrived in Italy. My brothers immediately decided to
quit the city and embark on a leisurely tour to the north,
lingering for a few days or even weeks in any particularly
engaging spot, but always pushing on toward Florence. We
settled comfortably in a tiny palazzo there, and I
began to recover. My fire-roughened voice smoothed again,
never quite as it had been, but not noticeably damaged. My
lungs were strengthened and my spirits raised. Lysander felt
comfortable enough to leave us to accept an invitation for a
brief trip to Venice to celebrate the private debut of a
friends opera. Plum pledged to watch over me, and Lysander
departed, to return a month later after endless delays and a
secret wedding, his voluble bride in tow.
had kept us company while Lysander was away, guiding us to
hidden piazze, revealing secret gardens and
galleries no tourists ever crowded. He drove us to Fiesole
in a beribboned pony cart, stopping to point out the most
breathtaking views in that enchanted hilltop town, and
introduced us to inns in whose flower-drenched courtyards we
were served food so delicious it must have been bewitched.
Plum always seemed to wander off, sketchbook in hand to
capture a row of cypresses, stalwart and straight as a
regiment, or the elegant curve of a si-gnorina's
cheek, distinctive as a goddess out of myth. Alessandro
did not seem to mind. He talked to me of history and culture
and we practiced our languages with each other, learning to
speak of everything and nothing at all.