Wife in the Shadows

By: Sara Craven



THE EAR-RINGS WERE the most exquisite she had ever seen.

Nestling in their bed of black velvet, the single diamond drops glowed with a fierce inner fire that made her wonder if her fingertips would burn as she touched them.

But, in fact, they were cold, she thought with a small ironic smile as she fastened them into her earlobes.

Cold as the rest of the jewellery she had been given over the last endless months.

Cold as the chill in the pit of her stomach when she envisaged the evening ahead of her.

And its possible aftermath.

She took the pendant, which had been the previous gift, from its case, and handed it to Donata, her maid, to fasten round her throat.

Then she rose from her dressing table, walked to the full-length mirror on an adjacent wall, and stood, straight and silent, subjecting her reflection to a critical, almost clinical examination.

The prescribed outfit for the evening was black, a simple full-length column of silk jersey, long-sleeved, and gathered in soft folds under the bust, its deep neckline revealing the first swell of her breasts, as well as setting off the pendant.

The dress was not in a colour or a style she particularly cared for.

It made her look older than her twenty three years, she thought objectively.

Conveyed a sophistication she certainly did not possess.

But, like so much else in life, it was not her choice.

And, anyway, she asked herself with irony, when had a puppet ever picked its own costume?Her hair had been swept up into an artfully arranged topknot, with just a few careless strands allowed to brush her cheeks and the nape of her neck.

She had never really warmed to Donata—the girl was too closely involved in the hollow sham that was her life, and probably saw altogether too much, she thought bitterly—but she could not fault her talent for hairdressing.

Or, it seemed, her discretion.

Whatever she might think of her employer’s marriage, she appeared to keep it to herself.

She had learned to apply her own cosmetics.

Practised with shadow, liner and mascara to make the most of the grey-green eyes that were her one real claim to beauty, so that they gleamed almost mysteriously under their fringe of heavily darkened lashes.

Her mouth wore the warm flush of a wild rose, and the same shade was echoed in the polish that enhanced her manicured nails.

And in her ears and at her throat, the diamonds glittered like ice in winter sunlight.

She heard a warning cough from Donata, and saw her glance significantly at her watch.

Time, it seemed, for another performance to begin.

Reaching for her evening purse, she walked to the door and out along the gallery to the head of the stairs, hearing from the opposite direction the sound of another door closing.

She paused, as always, watching him walk towards her, tall and lean in the elegance of his evening clothes, and moving as lithely as a panther, as if hinting that the formality of his appearance might only be a façade.

And he halted too, his dark gaze sweeping her in one unhurried, comprehensive assessment.

He gave a swift curt nod indicating that her appearance at least had won his approval, then they began to descend the stairs, side by side, but far enough apart to ensure that not so much as his sleeve would brush her arm.

Then, as they reached the marble floored hall below, she was aware of him turning towards her.

She heard his voice say quietly, ‘Tonight,’ and felt the word shiver across her senses until it became dread.

June the previous yearHe had, of course, been ambushed.

He realised it as soon as he entered the salotto and saw that his grandmother was not as he’d hoped, waiting to receive him alone.

Instead, her daughter, Signora Luccino, her plump face set in disapproving lines, was seated beside the Contessa Manzini.

‘Dearest Nonna.’ He went gracefully to his grandmother’s chair, and kissed her slender fingers.

‘And Zia Dorotea.’ He acknowledged his aunt’s presence with a polite inclination of the head that was not quite a bow.

‘What a pleasant surprise.’Well, at least in one respect he was telling the truth, he thought drily.

He had certainly not expected to come face to face with his late father’s older and least favourite sister, the imposing matriarch who ruled her large family as an absolute despot.

But he doubted very much if either of them would derive much pleasure from the encounter.

‘Caro Angelo.’ Cosima Manzini indicated that he should take the sofa opposite.

‘You are looking well, dearest.’He thought he heard his aunt give a quiet snort, but continued to smile pleasantly.

‘Thank you, I am in the best of health.

Probably more by good fortune than good judgement as I am sure Zia Dorotea wishes to remark.’‘I do not think that riding in a private horse race, when you were still recovering from the shoulder you dislocated in a polo match shows any kind of judgement, my dear Angelo,’ said the Signora.

Angelo’s smile widened.

‘But I had been heavily backed to win—not least by yourself, zia, or so my cousin Mauro tells me,’ he pointed out softly.

‘It would have been most discourteous to let people down, so I did not do so.’The expression on the Signora’s face said plainly that Mauro would suffer for his indiscretion.

‘You took a great risk, caro,’ his grandmother added, her arched brows drawing together.

‘A calculated one, Nonna.’‘Tuttavia, Angelo mio, there is a matter you must now seriously consider.’His mouth tightened.

‘You are again referring, I presume, to marriage.’‘Dear one, I must do.’ Cosima leaned forward, her eyes pleading.

‘I have no wish to interfere, or to make you angry, but it is over two years since your beloved father died, and you became Count Manzini.

You need a son and heir to inherit the title in his turn.’He said bleakly, ‘I am aware of my obligations, Nonna.

None better, I assure you.

But I do not find them particularly appealing.’‘No,’ said his aunt.

‘You prefer to trifle with other men’s wives rather than find one for yourself.

Oh, do not defend him, Mamma,’ she added sharply as the Contessa tried to speak.

‘It is the truth and Angelo knows it.

There are plenty of single girls for him to choose from, but until he stops behaving like a tomcat all over Rome, he will never find a bride.’He said between his teeth, ‘How good of you to take such an interest in my private life, Zia Dorotea.’‘If only it were private,’ she retorted.

‘But I fear that it is only a matter of time before one of your liaisons becomes a public scandal.

And I tell you, Angelo, you will have no-one to blame but yourself if the Galantana brand suffers as a result.’‘We make clothing for the fashion industry, zia,’ he returned coldly.

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