LAKE COMO, ITALY
IF MY HUSBAND didn’t die attempting this foolishness, I was going to kill him myself.
It was a glorious spring afternoon on the banks of Lake Como, but my mind was on neither the weather nor the stunning views of the lake with its backdrop of hazy blue mountains that lay before me. Instead, I stood on the balcony of the villa, a hand shading my eyes against the sun, and watched as a seaplane dipped and glided high above the glittering surface of the water. My husband, Milo, was at the controls, and to say I was displeased would be putting it mildly.
The morning had started out with no hint that such dangerous activities were impending. Milo had slept late, and I had gone for a walk along the shore after breakfast. I had arrived back at the villa an hour later to find a hastily scrawled note from Milo informing me that he was going out to fly a seaplane. I had had to read it twice to make sure I had not misunderstood. Considering he had never, to my knowledge, flown a seaplane—or any other type of plane, for that matter—in his life, the prospect was somewhat alarming.
I could not, however, say it was entirely surprising. Milo had been lamenting only yesterday that it was still too cold for waterskiing, and so it seemed that he had seized upon another, more drastic way to risk bodily harm.
What was more, I knew perfectly well who was responsible for introducing him to this newest type of peril. It was André Duveau, our neighbor here at the lake. He had the villa nearest ours, and he and my husband shared an affinity for racing, gambling, and, apparently, endangering their lives. It was no wonder they had become fast friends.
The plane swooped low toward the water, and my heart leapt to my throat. Unconsciously, I reached out to grip the rim of the stone flowerpot that sat on a pedestal near the railing. Just when it seemed that the plane was going to plunge into the water, its nose rose and it swooped upward once again. I suddenly had the distinct impression that Milo knew I was on the balcony and was frightening me on purpose.
I watched the plane climb higher until, unable to stand there any longer, I turned around and went back into the villa. If Milo was determined to kill himself, I was not going to watch him do it.
* * *
NOT AN HOUR later, I heard footsteps approaching the sitting room where I had been examining a French fashion magazine and hoping I would not be required to wear mourning in the summer.
My husband came into the room, followed by André Duveau. They were both dressed casually in shirtsleeves and trousers tucked into boots, the requisite flying costume, I supposed.
Milo had grown tan during our weeks in the Mediterranean sun, and his darkened complexion set off his black hair and made his blue eyes appear even brighter. I was not, however, in the mood to be swayed by how handsome he looked this morning, his hair tousled by the wind. I made sure to give no indication of my relief that he had arrived home safely.
“So you made it back alive, did you?” I asked, setting the magazine aside.
“Got my note, I see,” Milo said, smiling. He came to where I sat and leaned down to brush a kiss across my cheek before dropping into the chair across from me, apparently not fooled by my show of indifference. “You needn’t have worried, darling. You know no one brings me back to earth as well as you do.”
I refrained from a retort and turned to our guest, dropping the pretense of acceptance. “I should be very cross with you, Mr. Duveau.”
He smiled. “Allow me to beg your pardon, Mrs. Ames. I should be devastated to find myself in your bad graces.”
Despite his very French name, he had almost no trace of an accent, having spent the majority of his childhood, he had told us, in England. He currently made his home in Paris, among other places, but Como was his favorite retreat. He owned an expansive villa and kept several aeroplanes that he flew frequently.
“I cannot lay the blame entirely at your feet, in any event,” I said to Mr. Duveau as he took a seat. “Milo always does just as he pleases.” Considering how Milo loved to live recklessly, I supposed I was lucky that he had not taken to the skies before this.
Fortunately, we would not be in Como for much longer. We had only let our villa for a fortnight and would be returning to London within the week. Having spent the past month on holiday in Capri, we had been about to start the journey home when Milo had suddenly decided that a stop at Lake Como was in order. I had been perfectly willing to extend our stay in Italy, and our time here had been lovely and further improved by Mr. Duveau’s acquaintance.
“Then I am forgiven?” Mr. Duveau pressed, his eyes twinkling with amusement.
“Yes,” I allowed. “I suppose.”
He flashed another smile, and I thought it would be difficult for anyone to be cross with Mr. Duveau for long. Like my husband, he possessed the irresistible combination of startling good looks and a great deal of charm. His fair hair always looked a bit windswept, whether or not he had been out flying, and, in the short time I had known him, I had seen many women flush under the dual appeal of his warm dark eyes and roguish grin.
“It is I who shall have to work to earn forgiveness,” Milo told him. “My wife doesn’t approve of aeroplanes.”
“I fully appreciate the benefits of aeroplanes,” I said. “It is the idea of my husband careening about a thousand feet above the ground that doesn’t appeal to me.”
“You may rest assured, Mrs. Ames, that your husband has the makings of a fine pilot. A few more outings and perhaps we might be qualified to vie for the Schneider Trophy.”
I was not at all assured at the thought that Milo might make a habit of flying, let alone take up participating in seaplane races. If that was the case, I certainly had a few things to say about the matter, but now was not the time to discuss it.
“Will you stay for lunch, Mr. Duveau?” I asked.
“It is a tempting offer, but I’m afraid I haven’t time. I’m returning to Paris in the morning, and I have a great many things to attend to before I leave.”
“Oh, I didn’t realize that you were leaving so soon,” I said.
“I hadn’t intended to, but there are … certain matters that require my attention.”
A woman, I thought at once. The careful way he avoided mentioning just what urgent matter called him back made me suspect that there was an affair of the heart involved. I assumed that the lady in question would appreciate his flying to her side. It was rather a romantic gesture.
“It’s a shame you must leave,” I told him. “But I wish you safe travels.”
“Thank you. It’s been lovely making your acquaintance. I feel as though I shall be leaving old friends behind. In fact, I’ve brought a parting gift for you.” I hadn’t taken much notice of the small box in his hand until he held it out to me.
I took it and opened it to find a small glass bottle nestled in a bed of velvet. It was a bottle of perfume. I removed it from the box and examined it. The glass was cut in facets that gleamed in the light shining through the big windows behind me. “How lovely,” I said. I removed the stopper and the rich floral aroma drifted upward.
“It’s a brand-new scent,” he told me. “You’ll be one of the first women to wear it.”
“That’s very kind of you,” I said, taking the stopper from the bottle and dabbing it against my wrist. It smelled wonderful, soothingly familiar somehow and yet exotic.
“I noticed that you wear gardenia,” he said. “I thought you might like this. It’s called Shazadi. It’s a floral, but there is a warm, sensual undertone to it that suits you.”
“Thank you,” I said. “I shall enjoy wearing it.”
He smiled. “I hope so. Now I must bid you adieu. It’s been a pleasure meeting you both. Perhaps I shall see you in London sometime?”
“We should like that,” I said.
“And perhaps next time a fighter plane, eh, Ames?” he said. Then he winked at me and made his exit.
When I was quite sure that he was gone, I turned to my husband. “I know it’s useless of me to ask you not to do such reckless things, but you might at least wish me farewell in person before you make me a widow.”
Milo, as I knew he would, dismissed my concern. “You worry too much, my lovely. Seaplanes are perfectly safe. Not much different than driving an automobile.”
I was not going to argue the point with him. I had learned over the years to pick my battles. I could only hope that, with André Duveau gone, Milo would be left without access to this particular vice.
“Seaplanes aside, it’s too bad Mr. Duveau had to leave,” I said. “He’s very charming.”
I waved my wrist before my face and breathed in the perfume once again. There was something rather intoxicating about the scent.
“As far as that goes,” Milo said, rising from his seat, “when a fellow starts noticing what scent one’s wife wears and gifting her with perfume with ‘sensual undertones,’ it may be time to dispense with his friendship.”
I laughed. “Is it so strange for him to remember that I wear gardenia? I thought it was very kind of him to give me the perfume.”
“It wasn’t as kind as you think. He’s got some sort of financial involvement in a perfumery. They’ve probably given him crates of the stuff to foist off on people.”
“How charming you are this morning,” I said wryly.
He came to me and took my wrist in his hand, bringing it up to his nose. “It does smell lovely on your skin.”
“Do you think the sensual undertones suit me?” I asked softly.
“Oh, immensely.” He pulled me to him and lowered his mouth to mine, and I felt again that unaccustomed sensation of perfect contentment that had encompassed me as of late. I was rested, relaxed, and very happy. Only a year ago I had been convinced that my marriage was coming to an end. Now I felt that things had never been better.
Then suddenly Milo stilled, pulling back ever so slightly. “When did the post arrive?”
I looked up at him and saw that his gaze was directed over my shoulder. Apparently this non sequitur had come to pass as he looked down at the little table behind me where the morning post was stacked. “A little while ago,” I said. “Winnelda brought it in. I haven’t look at it yet.”
Milo released me and reached to pick up a letter. He was always terribly difficult to read, but I could sense a change in his mood as he examined the envelope.
“What is it?” I asked.
He hesitated ever so slightly and, though his expression didn’t change, I felt suddenly apprehensive. “There’s something I haven’t mentioned to you,” he said.
A variety of scenarios sprang immediately to mind. Given my husband’s somewhat colorful past, I imagined it could be any number of unpleasant things. I waited.
“I had an ulterior motive for stopping in Como,” he continued, doing nothing to set my mind at ease.
“Oh?” I inquired carefully.
“It has to do with Madame Nanette.”
I tried not to show my immense relief. Madame Nanette was Milo’s former nanny, the woman who had, for all intents and purposes, raised him. Whatever Milo’s secret was, it could not be as bad as I had feared.
“What about her?” I asked.
“I had a letter from her, forwarded by Ludlow, while we were in Capri. She’s taken a post in Paris and will be traveling with the family to Como. She had seen in the society columns we were in Italy and wondered if we would stop to visit her.”
Milo had received several letters forwarded by our solicitor while we had been abroad, so it would not have attracted my notice. I did wonder why he had chosen not to share this with me before we left Capri. It was not as though the news was something unpleasant. Quite the contrary, in fact.
“How nice,” I said. “I shall be glad to see her.”
He walked to the desk in the corner and picked up the letter opener, slitting open the envelope and pulling the letter from inside. His eyes scanned the words, his features impassive.
At last he looked up. “She’s going to remain in Paris. She asks that we come there.”
“Is she unwell?” I asked, suddenly worried. It was unlike Madame Nanette to request a visit. While she and Milo held each other in the highest regard, they did not remain in close contact. I had only met her twice, once at our wedding and once when we had passed through Paris at Christmas.
“She doesn’t say. The letter is very brief.”
“May I read it?”
He held it out to me without comment. I looked down at the piece of paper in my hand. It was thick, high-quality stationery embossed with a coat of arms, the crest of the house in which she now worked, I supposed.
Her penmanship was exceptional, beautiful script flowing in perfectly straight lines across the page.
My dear Milo,
I am unable to leave Paris after all. If you and your lovely wife could find the time to stop and see me, I would be most pleased.
In the postscript she had given her telephone number and asked him to ring her upon our arrival.
“There isn’t much to it,” I said.
“No, there isn’t.”
There was something unsettling about the brevity of the letter, though I didn’t know what exactly.
“Would you mind going to Paris?” he asked.
“Of course not. I think we should go as soon as possible. We’d better begin packing at once,” I told him, mentally beginning to make the necessary preparations. “We can take the train tomorrow.”
He smiled suddenly, and it was one of those smiles that made me instinctively uneasy. “Darling, how would you like to fly to Paris?”
WE TOOK THE night train from Milan.
“We might have been in Paris by now,” Milo mumbled as we prepared for bed in our private cabin after dinner, the dark landscape rushing by outside the window.
“But trains are so much more romantic,” I replied.
“Perhaps if there was a bed we could both fit into,” he retorted, glancing through the door of our small lounge at the narrow bunks in the adjoining sleeping cabin.
I ignored his complaints as I took a seat on the banquette sofa. Flying was, perhaps, the quicker route, but I preferred to journey with my feet firmly planted on the ground.
Besides, I liked to travel by train. The glossy wood paneling glowing warmly in the soft yellow light of the lamp; the gentle sway of the car; the soothing, rhythmic clatter of the wheels on the track. It all combined to create a comforting effect that left me feeling sleepy and peaceful.
I looked up at Milo, who appeared neither sleepy nor peaceful. There was a restless energy about him tonight, and I knew that being confined to our small compartment wasn’t likely to appeal to him. Yet he had brushed aside my suggestion that he take a drink in the train’s lounge and had retired with me as soon as we had finished our after-dinner coffee.
“Come and sit,” I said, patting the sofa beside me. He finished tying the belt of his dressing gown and did as bidden. Taking his silver cigarette case and lighter from his pocket, he lit a cigarette and leaned back against the seat with a sigh.
I studied the smooth lines of his profile for a moment before asking, “You don’t really mind that we didn’t fly to Paris?”
He turned his head to look at me. “No, darling,” he said, reaching out to squeeze my hand on the seat between us. “Duveau was likely flying his Avions Fairey Fox fighter anyway, and it only has two seats.”
“You might have flown without me.”
“I’m not so fond of Duveau’s company that I would choose it over yours.”
“But you would have liked to make the trip in an aeroplane.”
“I’d rather a cramped train compartment with you than all the aeroplanes in the world,” he said, bringing my hand up to his lips to kiss it.
I smiled, but I felt a growing wariness. As a general rule, Milo always said just the right things. But when he was this sweet, it was cause for suspicion. I had had the feeling since reading Madame Nanette’s letter. There was more to this trip to Paris than met the eye.
I shifted on the seat to face him. “Milo, there’s something I’ve been meaning to ask you.”
“Oh?” he asked, picking up a French newspaper and unfolding it, his eyes scanning the headlines. “What is that?”
“Why didn’t you tell me in Capri that Madame Nanette had written to you?”
He shrugged. “No reason in particular.”
“But you might have mentioned it was your reason for stopping in Como,” I persisted.
He hesitated for a fraction of a moment, and I had the distinct impression that he was debating whether or not to lie to me.
“It slipped my mind, I suppose,” he said in a careless tone, his gaze not leaving the paper.
Now I was certain that he was lying. Milo was many things, but forgetful was not one of them.
There had been a time in our marriage when I would have allowed this dismissal, but things had changed in recent months. I was not in the mood to be thwarted. I looked at him, my eyes narrowed. “What aren’t you telling me, Milo?”
“You’ve a suspicious mind, my sweet,” he said dryly, folding the paper.
“Whose fault do you suppose that is?” I replied, only half in jest.
“Entirely mine.” He smiled, tossed the newspaper aside, and leaned toward me. “I’m very wicked indeed, tainting your innocent heart with constant mistrust.” There was a look in his eyes that made it clear that he was going to do his best to distract me from the conversation.
This was confirmed as he pressed his mouth to mine and slid his arms around me, and for a moment I almost forgot that I was growing cross with him. Almost.
I pulled back from his kiss and firmly pushed him away. “Answer me, Milo.”
The corner of his mouth tipped up, an expression that was a mixture of amusement and exasperation, and he sat back with a sigh. “I didn’t mention it because I was afraid you would do what you are doing now: baying at the scent of trouble like an overwrought bloodhound.”
My brows rose. “I will overlook, for the time being, that highly insulting description of my interest and ask only that you explain yourself. What trouble?”
He leaned across me to grind out his cigarette in the brass ashtray on the little table near the window. “I’m not entirely sure. There was something wrong about Madame Nanette’s first letter.”
“What do you mean?”
“For one thing, she wrote of a private matter she wished to discuss with me. The vagueness of it was what caught my attention. She has never had trouble expressing herself, so the careful wording was unusual. Something about the tone of the letter was off.”
Vagueness was not, in itself, cause for alarm, but I trusted Milo’s instincts. He was unnervingly astute when he wanted to be.
“She didn’t come out and say it,” he went on, “but I had the impression there was some difficulty with the family for whom she’s working.”
“They were supposed to holiday in Como,” I said.
“Yes. I didn’t mention it because I didn’t know if there was anything in it. I thought I could go and speak with her without causing you alarm.”
I didn’t entirely buy this excuse, especially given his unflattering reference to my proclivity for sniffing out trouble.
“But then you received the second letter this morning,” I said, “saying that she had been detained in Paris.”
He nodded. “That seems to confirm that something is amiss. She would not have asked me to come otherwise.”
Even from the meager details at our disposal, I could not disagree with his assessment that something seemed wrong. I wished that he had seen fit to confide in me before this.
“You might have told me, you know,” I said.
His expression was unrepentant. “You’ve been in enough danger as of late. I have determined to keep you out of trouble, and I won’t apologize for it.”
I frowned. It was true that we had found our way into several less-than-desirable situations over the past year, but wasn’t that all the more reason for us to do what we could to solve Madame Nanette’s problem? We were becoming experts at such things.
“Surely it’s not a question of danger,” I said. “And if Madame Nanette is experiencing some kind of difficulty, we should do whatever we can to help her.”
“I shall do whatever is necessary,” he said with an air of finality that irritated me.
“Well, you won’t be doing it without me,” I said.
He studied my face for a moment and then shook his head.
“Why are you looking at me like that?” I asked.
“That expression of yours. I know what it means.”
“And what is that?”
He sighed. “Trouble.”
* * *
WE ARRIVED IN Paris on a warm morning full of sunshine and the scent of heliotrope.
Despite my concern about Madame Nanette and my irritation at Milo’s initial secrecy, I had been lulled into a deep sleep by the motion of the train and had awoken feeling refreshed and hopeful. Perhaps there was nothing so very wrong after all. Perhaps Madame Nanette merely wanted to visit with us. It had been a long time since we had seen her, after all.
We had lunch at a café and then went to our hotel, a lovely stone building with blue shutters and window boxes full of bright flowers. It was not where we usually stayed when in Paris, but it was in close proximity to the address on Madame Nanette’s letter, and we thought it would be best to be near her.
Milo had wired her about our arrival and he stopped to inquire at the desk as to whether there were any messages.
“There is a message, monsieur,” the desk clerk said, handing Milo a slip of paper.
Milo took it and glanced at it. “She says she will call tonight after dinner, if she can get away.”
I nodded, my optimism suddenly beginning to fade. I sincerely hoped there wasn’t something seriously amiss, that she wasn’t ill. Though Milo was not one to confide his feelings, I knew that he cared very greatly for Madame Nanette. His mother had died shortly after giving birth to him, and Madame Nanette was the closest thing to a mother that he had ever known.
He seemed to have sensed my concern, for he smiled reassuringly and gently squeezed my arm as we exited the lift and followed the bellboy toward our room.
I stepped into our suite and looked around as the bellboy deposited our hand luggage inside the doorway. Our trunks had come ahead with my maid and Milo’s valet from the station.
“Everything in order?” Milo asked, as he tipped the young man and then closed the door behind him.
“Yes, it’s lovely,” I said.
The door from the hallway had opened into the sitting room, which was tastefully decorated in pastels and muted florals. A satin sofa and armchair sat before the marble fireplace, and there were a number of pleasant art pieces on the walls. Floor-to-ceiling windows lined one wall, and I walked across the plush carpets to them and pulled back the drapes. Below us, the Seine sparkled in the afternoon sunlight.
“It’s nice to be back in Paris,” I said. “It seems as though it’s been ages.”
Though the words were sincere, I heard the lack of enthusiasm in my own voice. I couldn’t seem to shake my growing unease. Milo must have noticed it, for he followed me to the window and stood close behind me.
“There’s no need to fret, darling,” he murmured, sliding his arms around me and brushing a kiss on my neck. “I’m quite sure everything will be fine.”
“Yes,” I said, his confidence making me want to believe it, too. “I’m sure you’re right.”
There was a polite shuffling of feet behind us, and I knew that Milo’s valet, Parks, was making his presence known. Parks was extremely uncomfortable with any displays of affection between Milo and myself, and he took great pains to make sure he never stumbled onto one unknowingly.
“Yes, Parks?” Milo asked, releasing me and turning to face him.
“Your things are all arranged, sir, and I’ve set out your evening clothes. Is there anything more?”
“I don’t think so,” Milo said. “Why don’t you take the evening off, Parks. I daresay even you could find something to amuse yourself with in Paris.”
“Undoubtedly, sir,” Parks said, with an absolute lack of enthusiasm. “Thank you.”
“Is Winnelda somewhere about?” I asked.
“I believe she went to a nearby shop, madam, to collect some, ah, reading materials.” The words were rife with disapproval.
I knew very well what type of reading materials Winnelda would be collecting. Gossip rags. She loved nothing more than juicy scandals, and I was certain Paris would have plenty of them for her. I was doubtful, however, that she would find much written in English.
“Thank you, Parks,” I said.
He nodded and then noiselessly exited the suite.
“Poor fellow can barely contain his excitement at the prospect of an evening off in Paris,” Milo remarked dryly.
I smiled. “I do wonder sometimes what Parks is like when he’s alone. Do you think he’s always so respectable?”
“Eminently. I half expect he sleeps in his suit.”
“I know working in proximity with Winnelda has been trying for him.” Winnelda was as flighty as Parks was dependable, and I suspected that she vexed him greatly.
“He may not have to worry. You’re likely to lose that girl in Paris,” Milo commented. “Either she’ll be swept off her feet by some mustachioed scoundrel or she’ll wind up kicking her heels in a chorus line.”
“No, not that,” I said. “She hasn’t balance enough.”
It was just then that the door to the suite opened, and Winnelda came inside, a stack of magazines in her arms. She stopped when she saw us and bobbed an awkward little curtsey. “Oh, madam, Mr. Ames, I didn’t realize that you had arrived. I just went down the street to purchase a few things. That is … I … well, I have your trunks almost unpacked, madam. Shall I unpack the little valise you had with you?”
With one last look at the picturesque view outside, I turned from the window and pulled off my gloves.
“Yes, Winnelda, thank you. And will you lay out something for me to wear this evening?”
“I thought you’d be buying new gowns,” she said, her tone expressing shock that I should wear something I already owned when all the shops in Paris were at my disposal.
“I may do some shopping,” I said with a smile, “but not before dinner.”
She looked a bit disappointed, so I resorted to a topic I knew would cheer her.
“Anything of interest in the society columns?” I asked. Winnelda took great pleasure in the bad behaviors of the rich and famous. Now that Milo had managed to keep himself out of the gossip columns for the last several months, I was much less averse to them than I had been when his name was bandied about with those of beautiful socialites and cinema stars.
“I had to go through a lot of magazines to find anything interesting,” Winnelda said glumly. “Most of them were in French and had an old man on the cover.”
“An old man?” I repeated.
“Yes, his photograph was on the cover of many of them. He was quite old and not very handsome at all.”
“That’s too bad,” I said, fighting back a smile.
“I bought the ones I could find in English and a few of the French ones, too. I thought, perhaps, you might tell me what some of them say later.”
If I had known the direction our Paris visit was about to take, I might have paid a bit more attention to the gossip columns from the beginning.
Copyright © 2017 by Ashley Weaver