Castle Duairc, County Kildare, Ireland, October 1832
A flurry of rain rattled the windowpane, and a gust of wind found a gap in the casement, making the curtains billow. Shivering, Estelle curled up under the sheets, knowing that sleep would never come. How could it, when in a few short hours she’d finally discover the true reason for her husband’s tortured and self-destructive behaviour.
Another strong gust of wind blew the window open. Jumping out of bed, she wrestled to close it over. A storm was brewing in more ways than one. A shaft of moonlight pierced the thick cloud casting a shadow on the lake, illuminating the ruined tower on the island. It looked stark, brooding, ominous, as befitting a place harbouring dark secrets.
Secrets which had already blighted their marriage. They had lived – no, barely existed – in the shadow of those secrets for far too long. Was it too late to salvage something from the wreckage? Tomorrow, the past would be dug up and the truth unearthed. Whatever that turned out to mean, she was determined not to let it destroy them completely.
Florence, Grand Duchy of Tuscany, May 1832
She first became aware of him in the Piazza della Signoria. It was a Monday morning and she was enjoying her ritual morning coffee. He was perched on the stone balustrade of the Neptune fountain set in the middle of the piazza, trailing his hands languidly in the water, his back to the looming Palazzo Vecchio. His gaze roamed over the same milling throngs that she had been idly observing, a mixture of tourists and Florentines enjoying the morning sunshine.
There were any number of well-dressed and presentable young men among the crowd. What was it about him that particularly caught her attention? Perhaps it was the fact that he was so obviously not Italian. But then, so were a good many of the passers-by. Was it his looks? But he was not handsome, not in the flamboyant, peacock manner of the local dandies who didn’t so much walk as strut. He had light-brown hair, close-cut, with strong rather than striking features. His skin looked weathered rather than tanned, and his nascent beard could have simply been the result of neglecting to shave for two or three days. Unkempt, that was the word that sprung to mind, for his hair, though short, had a rumpled look, as if it were a stranger to a comb, and his clothes, though clearly the product of expensive tailoring, looked as if they had been donned straight from a valise without the intervention of either a valet or a hot iron. Yet she couldn’t take her eyes off him.
How long she had been staring before their gazes clashed and held, she had no idea. Her insides jolted. It was not recognition, for they most certainly had not met before, but an urging, as if it was imperative that they should meet. He didn’t stare openly in those attenuated moments. She had the impression of being subject to a cool assessment, then surprise was registered in the slight raising of his brow, before he turned away as if shielding himself from view, resenting the intrusion on his thoughts.
In the aftermath, her cheeks heated. Had she been ogling him, the very thing that she loathed being subjected to herself? She had become accustomed, now that she had finally come out into the world, to being assessed, to being leered at and even occasionally accosted. Her flamboyant looks gave men the impression that she welcomed close attention. She did not, but she’d come to expect it, and had become practiced too, at rebuffing it. Yet this man had done none of those things. She was being fanciful, she decided, for the piazza had been crowded and he was at least twenty yards away. But the fleeting encounter haunted her for the rest of the day.
She saw him again the next morning, in the same square. Not that she deliberately sought him out, certainly not, it was simply that she went to the same café every morning, at the same time. In the ten days she’d been in the city, it had become her habit to sip one of the small, syrupy cups of Italian coffee there, on the pretext of planning her day. In reality, it was simply another way of whiling away the time – something the Florentines did with élan and at which she had been surprised to discover she too was rather adept.
She wasn’t looking for him, but he was there, and her stomach fluttered when she spotted him, not quite as she’d remembered him but – goodness, if anything even more intriguing! He really wasn’t handsome, and yet that added to his attraction and as far as she was concerned, made him stand out from the crowd. He wasn’t sitting at the fountain this time, but inspecting the Medici lions in the Loggia dei Lanzi. He was very tall and solid-looking, built more like a man who earned his living from hard labour than a man of leisure. She liked his dishevelled appearance, it spoke of a man who had more important things on his mind, who had neither any need nor interest in setting out to impress. She cupped her chin in her hand, allowing herself to study him while his attention was focused on the statues. He wasn’t wearing a hat or gloves. Unconventional. That too appealed to her. What was he doing here in Florence? Was he alone? He certainly didn’t have the air of a man with an entourage. Or a valet to iron his rumpled clothes!
She smiled wryly to herself, perfectly well aware that she was bending his circumstances to her will. But where was the harm, after all, in indulging her imagination? Wasn’t it one of the reasons that women ventured abroad, to seek romance safe from society’s gaze? Most decidedly not one of her objectives, but she understood well enough the disconnection from reality that travel offered, that allowed a person to behave completely out of character, to flout the conventions which usually bound them. Florence, in the heat of the southern sun, was a city in which passions of all kinds flourished. Until now, she had been a mere disinterested observer, but this man fired both her imagination and her senses. She allowed herself to picture their eyes meeting again as they had yesterday, only this time he would cross the square, sit down beside her and smile shyly. She would smile in return to demonstrate his attentions were not entirely unwelcome
He looked up, and once again their eyes did meet but, appalled that her scandalous train of thought might be transparent, she dropped her gaze immediately, concentrating on her coffee and the sweet flaky pastry which constituted her breakfast. When she next raised her eyes he was gone, and though she quickly surveyed the piazza she could see no sign of him, as if he really was a figment of her imagination, and had vanished into thin air.
On Wednesday morning, he was seated two places away from her usual table in the café. He nodded, quirked a smile at her, then returned his attention to his notebook. His eyes were blue-green, with a permanent fan of lines at the edges. There were permanent lines on his brow too, and a furrow that deepened above his nose as he studied his notebook, his mouth turned down at the edges with concentration. Every now and then he looked up from his scribbling to stare off into the distance, to smile to himself, then continue writing. And every now and then, when she had been consciously looking in the other direction or concentrating on her pastry, she had the distinct impression that he was studying her, as covertly as she was studying him.
What was in his notebook, that he found so fascinating? It was not a journal, she decided, for his absorption seemed far too genuine. Diarists and journalists, she had noticed, made much of their occupation, making a show of setting out their writing and sketching implements, gazing down at the page in search of the perfect word or well-turned phrase, ensuring that those around them understood that they were serious travellers engaged in a serious endeavour, creating a tableau for onlookers to observe the creative process as deliberately as if they were on stage. But this man – no, he didn’t give a damn who was watching him.
This time, she forced herself to leave before he did. He looked up as she pushed her chair back, then hurriedly looked away.
It was Thursday, in the Uffizi galleries that they finally met. She was not particularly drawn to the collection, which was so vast that she felt quite overwhelmed by the sheer opulent beauty of the paintings and the tapestries, but she loved the sense of history that seemed to seep from the walls, even if she knew little about it. As ever, she wanted to see behind the public façade, to open all the locked and hidden doors, to discover the beating heart and all the lost corners too, of what had, extraordinarily, once been an elaborate set of offices. She loved the architecture, the simplicity of the exterior belying the extravagance within. And in particular she loved the view through the high arch at the end of the long narrow courtyard, of the River Arno and the buildings jostling on the opposite bank. This was her favourite picture, framed by the gallery itself.
She didn’t see him at first, being absorbed in a little drama that was being played out between a mother and her two children, who had as little interest in the art as she did, and were begging to be left to their own devices to play in the courtyard by the Arno. Their flustered mother was clearly tempted, and equally clearly reluctant to accede to their demands. Eventually, the woman threw her hands up in surrender, signalling that the family dose of culture would have to wait for another day, marching the jubilant pair towards the exit.
She turned, smiling to herself, and walked straight into him. ‘I beg your pardon,’ she said in English, not at first realising that it was him, immediately correcting herself. ‘Mi spiace.’
‘No, I’m sorry, it was my fault.’
Surprise, recognition, embarrassment and a kick of raw excitement made her skin flush. ‘You’re Irish!’ she blurted out, for his accent was unmistakable.
‘And your own mellifluous tones betray the fact that so indeed are you. Aidan Malahide, at your service.’
He sketched a bow. ‘It is a pleasure, Mrs Brannagh.’
‘Miss,’ she corrected him, blushing as she curtsied.
Was she imagining his gratification at her single state? They smiled awkwardly at each other. He shuffled his feet, as if he was about to move on, but he made no move. Was this it then, the beginning and end of their briefest of acquaintances? In England, without anyone to make formal introductions, it would be. But they were not in England.
‘What do you make of the…’
‘Are you enjoying…’
‘Please,’ she said, indicating that he should continue.
‘I was merely wondering whether you were enjoying the paintings.’
‘I was – it is – there is so much to take in,’ Estelle floundered, unwilling to lie, but not wishing to be branded a Philistine. ‘It can be a little overwhelming. I was going to ask you the same question.’
‘I’ll be honest. I think the building more interesting than the content. The proportions and the perspective of the works of art – those, I could study all day.’
‘I’m so glad you said that, for it allows me to be honest too. This,’ Estelle said, indicating her favourite view, ‘I think it quite beautiful. As to the paintings – sadly, I find myself quite unable to go into raptures over them, let alone transcribe those raptures into my journal.’
‘As ever other visitor to Florence does!’ To her delight and relief, he laughed. ‘There now, I knew from the moment I set eyes on you, taking your coffee in the piazza on Monday, that you were different. Most ladies taking coffee on their own have a book or a journal, but you seemed quite content in your own company. Not,’ he added hastily, ‘that I’ve been spying on you, it’s merely that I noticed you.’
‘It’s my hair.’ She put a self-conscious hand to the nape of her neck. ‘Redheads are not very common here on the Continent.’
He studied her for a moment, one brow raised. ‘You must know perfectly well that you are a beauty, and an uncommon one at that.’
‘Not so very uncommon at all, actually. I have two sisters, both also redheads and very similar in looks.’
‘Ah now, I’ve put your back up and I didn’t mean to. It’s why I didn’t speak to you, though I wanted to. I reckoned you must be sick of being accosted, and – well, as I said, you’d an air about you, of being perfectly content in your own company. Which I’ll leave you to now.’ He sketched another bow. ‘It was a pleasure, Miss Brannagh.’
It took her until he had turned his back and taken two steps to summon up the courage to call him back. ‘Mr Malahide, don’t go just yet.’ But as he turned, her nerve was already crumbling. ‘You probably prefer to be alone – I noticed that you too seemed very content in your own company, but if you would like – oh, this is too awkward.’
‘It is indeed,’ he said with a wry smile. ‘You know nothing about me, and under normal circumstances, my being very much aware of that fact, I wouldn’t dream of inviting you to take coffee with me.’
‘Or perhaps an ice?’
‘Or indeed, an ice. Would it be presumptive of me to issue such an invitation?’
‘An ice, in a café in full public view,’ Estelle said, ‘hardly an unseemly suggestion. Admiring art is very tiring work. Your invitation isn’t in the least presumptive, Mr Malahide, it is very welcome, and I am happy to accept it.’