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Authors: Susan Barrie

Rose in the Bud

ROSE IN THE BUD

Susan Barrie

Cathleen went to Venice to search for her missing sister, and got “taken up” by the charming Count Paul di Rini and his sister.

But was Paul really interested in her—or
did the fact that he thought she was an heiress have anything to do with it?

 

 

CHAPTER I

To b
egin with it was much more up-to-date and a part of the
modern
world than Cathleen could have supposed; but to go on with it was enchanting. The silent protest she registered had to do with the modernity, and the fact that, instead of being propelled beneath Venetian arches by a leisurely gondolier who sang to her while he dipped his pole in and out of the slu
ggish
water, she was conveyed at some speed by a motor-boat. The enchantment was everywhere, pouring like golden balm out of a matchless blue heaven, gilding spires and rooftops and faded palaces and waterways
... the celebrated ‘liquid light’ of Venice.

As Cathleen looked up at the sky and watched it paling before the assault of sunset she wondered what it would be like when it was dark and the stars appeared. Would they be enormous, like silver lamps to discover the secrets of this ancient palatine?

The Grand Canal was a river of light along which she travelled smoothly, but not in a particularly romantic fashion. She had imagined herself listening to the lazy slap and murmur of the water as it broke against the sides of the gondola, and with plenty of time to consider what she would have to say when she finally arrived in between leaving the train behind and being decanted at the foot of the steps of the Palazzo de Rini. But at the rate she was travelling there was not even a lot of opportunity to admire the scenery, except that the Gothic beauty of the Doge’s palace had impressed her so much she was by no
means certain it was entirely real, and the Bridge of Sighs was very much as she had always imagined it.

The gondolier appeared to have lost himself in a labyrinth of waterways that opened off the Grand Canal, and then he was handing her out, and she was actually standing on the crumbling steps of the Palazzo de Rini, and the gondolier’s white teeth were flashing in the sunset light as he demanded his fee.

It was fairly steep, Cathleen thought
... a high-priced water-taxi service for the benefit of tourists. She gave him a tip in addition, and his expansive smile grew even more expansive. He had judged correctly that this pretty, well-dressed young woman would not jib at the little extra he considered was only his due, especially as she was from
England.
English visitors were always a little reckless, much more so than some of their American cousins, who adhered to a parsimonious budget.

“You’re sure this is the right
palazzo
?” Cathleen glanced up at it in a certain amount of awe, for despite its peeling, pink-washed facade and a certain air of decay that hung about it it seemed to her too huge to be an ordinary dwelling-house. “The Contessa di Rini lived here for years.”


Si, signorina
.”
The gondolier knew all about the Contessa di Rini. “But she dead six months
... a year! Family move in.”

“Family?”


Her nephew, the Conte, and his sister, Signorina Bianca.” The gondolier’s eyes fairly rolled, and he kissed his hand.

A beauty, that one!”


I see,

Cathleen said. She considered a moment, and then she asked: “Do you happen to know whether a young Englishwoman lives here, also? Or at least, is staying here?”

The Italian smiled.

“Sometimes young English ladies come here. Count Paul is a painter. He paints many beautiful ladies!”

Cathleen decided to say no more, and she dismissed the gondolier from the head of the steps. The first floor of the
palazzo
—or water-level floor—was an echoing hall paved with beautiful mosaic from which a grand, curving staircase led upwards, and on the floor above that the rooms began. There appeared to be a large number of doors, from most of which the paint appeared to be hanging in strips, and above the echoing well of the stairs a magnificent chandelier was suspended. Cathleen spared an admiring glance up at it as she hesitated between two of the doors, and she decided that Venice was going to delight her aesthetically, although it probably had a large number of shocks in store.

Most of the wall space was covered in exquisite murals, and even the peeling doors had been beautifully painted at one time. There was a lot of faded gold paint and gilded cornices, and an enormous window that overlooked the canal was filled with glowing bits of brilliant red, green and blue glass. As the light poured through this window, and she was simply covered in it, she actually felt as if part of her was on fire, while other parts were dappled with violet and emerald.

She decided to knock on the door immediately confronting her, and her knock had a slightly muffled sound as if it was immediately caught up and lost in the prevailing silence of the vast
palazzo.
She tried again, and this time, in addition to hurting her knuckles, she had the satisfaction of seeing the door whipped open.

A
face looked out at her, dark, grave, surprised. As she stood there, feeling suddenly acutely nervous and wishing she was anywhere but where she was at that particular moment, the face became a part of a slim, elegant masculine frame that was neatly attired in a well-cut sober suit, and a pair of dark eyebrows went up in even more noticeable surprise.

“I can help you,
mademoiselle
?”
a polite voice enquired.

Cathleen felt as if she was plunging in at the deep end of an unfamiliar swimming-pool, and she answered a trifle breathlessly. Actually, she had not yet recovered her breath after her ascent of the stairs.

“Yes, please,” she replied. “I’m looking for
... that’s to say, I wish to see...” She broke of, for it seemed an odd thing now that it was an established fact that she had come all the way from England to call like this on a man with whose face she was not even familiar, especially as her water-taxi had already departed and she was temporarily marooned on his doorstep, not even knowing whether he was at home, whether he would receive her, or whether he would deny all knowledge of the reason for her visit. “Do you happen to be Count Paul di Rini?” she asked bluntly.

There was a brief pause during which the man’s black eyebrows remained slightly arched, and then he quite plainly recovered from his surprise.

“No,” he said curtly. “The name is Moroc. But if you wish to see Paul he is in.” And there was a definite quality of disdain in the quiet voice with the patrician French accent.

A voice called gaily over his shoulder:

“Who is it, Edouard? Unless my ears deceive me you are conducting the conversation in English, and therefore our visitor is from—A-ah!” The
man
who had appeared behind Edouard Moroc was much more the type of man Cathleen was seeking. He was younger, for one thing—considerably younger, since the other co
u
ld have been somewhere in his late thirties—and he had the startling good looks that had once been described to her in detail in a letter. Not the kind of masculine good looks that she herself would have been instantly attracted by, but arresting, lively, clear-cut as a cameo—indeed, they had been reproduced in Italian frescoes and on Roman coins from time immemorial—and arrogantly aristocratic.

He had softly black eyes, fantastic eyelashes, hair that curled naturally and appeared to be overlaid by a kind of burnish, and a slightly sallow skin that was nevertheless healthily bronzed. He was wearing a bright blue silk shirt open at the neck, and some paint-stained blue jeans on which he was wiping paint-stained fingers, and he had just set down an enormous cluttered palette on the hall table.


Signorina
!”
he exclaimed, as if the sight of her affected him in the same manner as an appetising meal would affect a hungry man. In fact, the black eyes actually glistened with approval. “This is a most charming and wholly delightful surprise! But to what do I owe the honour...
?

“You are Count Paul di Rini?”

He bowed from the waist.

“I’m afraid you catch me at an inauspicious moment—” indicating the stained jeans—“but if I had had the least idea that I was to be so favoured...” He regarded her in a puzzled fashion.

“Can I come in?” she asked.

“But of course
!

He stood aside from the doorway, and Edouard Moroc, with a dry look on his face, said something about disappearing if he was likely to be in the way.

“I’ll see you later, Paul,” he said. “I’ll wait for you in the main
salon
.”
His jaundiced gaze rested on
Cathleen. “Or perhaps, since Alphonse is unlikely to be in the kitchen at this hour of the day, I could heat you up some coffee if the lady is staying ... or if not coffee, there must be a bottle of wine somewhere!”

“No, no,” Cathleen exclaimed, deciding it was high time she introduced herself, and wishing to make it clear from the outset that she had no intention of remaining for a moment longer than was strictly necessary. “I—I have no intention of taking up anyone’s time, but the reason I am here is very important ... to me! My name is Cathleen Brown, and I’m looking for my sister, Arlette Brown.”

If she had exploded a bomb in the echoing, marble-floored entrance hall she could not have evoked a more noticeable response. The two men looked at one another, and then Moroc strode towards a doorway and disappeared. Count Paul di Rini, allowing his palette to remain on the beautiful example of ornate Italian craftsmanship that was an eighteenth-century inlaid table with silver
cl
aw feet, once more bowed—only more formally this time—to his unexpected visitor, and then led the way to an unexpectedly beautiful room that was not merely furnished with many priceless things, but was extremely comfortable in a
modern
way, and indicated a love of luxurious living that was not at odds with being an aristocrat in a modern world.

“Sit down, Miss Brown,” he said, and extended one of his shapely long-fingered hands in the direction of a velvet-covered couch.

Cathleen sat down. Since it was a very hot day and all the windows were open and the place was full of flowers she instantly felt a little more relaxed, but only a very little. For the Count’s dark eyes were resting on her with a slightly mocking glitter in their depths, and even his voice held a note of mockery as he spoke.

“So you have come all this way to discover the whereabouts of your sister
?
” he said.

“My half-sister.”

“I do remember Arlette, of course. She acted the part of companion to my aunt, the late Contessa, and was also very friendly, I believe, with my sister... But,” the mockery like an actual cold sparkle in the velvet-black eyes, “you will understand that I am not in the habit of forming close associations with young women living under the protection of my female relatives, and when my aunt died I had no authority to demand from Miss Brown what she intended to do with the rest of her life. To the best of my knowledge she packed up her bags and left. Indeed, she could not very well do otherwise since this is now a bachelor establishment.”

He offered her a cigarette from a selection on a small occasional table. She refused, and her eyes—rather like grey violets, he afterwards described them to an acquaintance—looked straight at
him.

“But my sister wrote that you had asked her to marry you,” she stated coolly and bluntly.

The Count’s eyebrows merely went up, and he looked amused.


Signorina
,”
he said softly, as if he was doing his best not to be openly contemptuous, “you did not, surely, believe that, did you? Arlette was a most charming girl,” moving a little nearer to her and making another attempt to press her to have a cigarette, “and indeed I can see now that I should have recognised you immediately as some sort of connection of hers. You have the same enchanting light brown hair that looks as if it has been powdered by gold dust, the same delicious complexion, and truly beautiful eyes
... Irish eyes, are they
?
” He was smiling quizzically and bending over her, holding out a monogrammed gold cigarette-case that she consistently refused to look at. “I seem to remember Arlette said something about an Irish grandmother ... and in actual fact I believe she was christened Bridget, is that not so?”

Cathleen admitted it was so, and felt a kind of humiliation rush up over her. Arlette was such a theatrical name ... and Arlette’s was a theatrical personality. But she could not explain this attitude of mind that was peculiarly her own because almost everyone who met Arlette sooner or later made the observation that she certainly did not look like a Bridget
... which made it all the more understandable that she should decline to be known by a label that had been bestowed upon her at birth simply because her parents—or one of them—had hailed from the Emerald Isle.

Cathleen was Cathleen because it was her mother’s name, and a lot of people thought it suited her. Count Paul di Rini, after dwelling upon the matter for a brief while, decided that it suited her also.

“Cathleen and Bridget,” he murmured softly. “Together they sound enchanting. You really will have to let me paint you one of these days. Arlette would have made an excellent subject, but I could never induce her to sit still long enough. Now, you
... there is an element of repose about you...”

“Count di Rini,” Cathleen exclaimed, her Irish eyes flashing, “I have not come all this way to discuss art with you. I have come here for news of my sister.”

“Of course,” he murmured.

“The last we heard of her—my mother and I—she was very happy here, the Contessa—your aunt—was exceptionally kind to her, life was quite wonderful, and she was intending to marry you! With the death of the Contessa things must have altered, certainly ... but they couldn’t alter so drastically that a contemplated marriage could be abandoned. In her last letter she stated positively that the Contessa had given her consent..
.”

Paul’s smile became so very amused that it was quite literally insulting, although at the same time it indulged her a little.

“Dear Signorina Brown,” he murmured, “I am not responsible for the unauthorised girlish nonsense a young woman like Arlette might include in a letter to her sister. I only know that I liked Arlette, she was at all times an amusing companion, and sometimes very sweet—at any rate to me! After my aunt’s death there was nothing for her to do here, so she left the
Palazzo
—”

“And where did she go?” Cathleen shot at him.

He shrugged his shoulders helplessly.

“How would I know,
signorina
?” He spread his hands. “I was never in her confidence, despite what you might have been led to believe—”

“I’m afraid I can’t accept that,” Cathleen told him, and rose to her feet. “Count di Rini, I must know where my sister is
... My mother is very anxious about her. For one thing, if she left here as suddenly as you seem to indicate it would have only been to take another job, since she obviously didn’t return to England
... and if she took another job you would have had to provide her with a reference.”

Count Paul looked as if this was really rather touching.

“Now, now,” he said, shaking his head, “why would a pretty girl have always to look for another job? In Italy life is much more romantic than it apparently is in England. Natural charmers like Arlette can always fall on their feet.” The dark, meaning depths of his fantastically lustrous eyes revolted her, and prepared at the outset to mistrust him she now felt that he might very quickly become actually abhorrent to her.

She could hear movements outside the door of the room which could indicate that Edouard Moroc was about to rejoin them with a tray of coffee, and she spoke quickly.

“Count Paul, you might as well know that I have every intention of finding my sister. I have come here to look for her. If necessary I shall contact the police—”

“A waste of time,” he assured her. “The police have other matters to attend to. But it could not have been very convenient to come all this way to look for a sister—”

“It was not.”

“And expensive...
?
” His eyebrows arched. Another moment and she was certain he would start feeling for his wallet. With the colour hot in her cheeks she explained contemptuously:

“I have no need to consider expense.” Actually he had been a little puzzled by the good taste of her clothes, and the fact that everything she wore was part of a carefully considered outfit, even down to the genuine crocodile handbag with her initials in gold on the side that she carried. “I recently inherited quite a lot of money, and if I wish to stay in Italy for some time I can do so. I have already warned you I am
prepared
to stay and look for my sister—”

The door opened, and Moroc entered with the same slightly sardonic expression on his face, and his tray held high as if he was practising to be a waiter. He set it down on a little table in front of Cathleen, and invited her to do the honours.

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