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Authors: Celine Conway

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Perchance to Marry

BOOK: Perchance to Marry
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PERCHANCE TO MARRY

Celine Conway

Marcus Durant had suggested to Sally Sheppard that she become “engaged” to him, in an effort to put his beloved grandmother’s mind at rest. It would be purely a temporary measure, he explained, with no real feelings on either side.

With anyone but Marcus, Sally would have entered into the spirit of the thing, treated it all as a joke. But, far too late, she realized she had fallen in love with him too hard to take the affair anything but seriously.

CHAPTER ONE

VIOLA SHEPPARD remained in the taxi while Sally made the enquiries. She clasped her small gloved hands very tightly and made a conscious effort to prevent her thin delicate lips from pursing; no woman over the age of thirty should pleat her mouth, and Viola sorrowfully admitted, though not to outsiders, to being forty-seven. Not only forty-seven but a widow with a daughter of nineteen. Nineteen! And it seemed no time at all since she herself was climbing out of her gay teens into her even more exciting twenties. Life was so unfair.

This horrible taxi smelled of dust and cachous and garlic. The street was appallingly narrow and slummy, and could not possibly be the
avenida
they were looking for. But Sally said she had seen the name chopped out of the black stone building at the corner, and now she had stopped the taxi and got out to investigate. She seemed to have vanished into one of the dark doorways, and Viola wondered, sinkingly, what she would do if Sally didn’t appear again.

They should never have come to Barcelona; she knew that now. It had sounded so marvellous in England: “Manageress required for beauty emporium which caters exclusively for English-speaking clients. Good salary and flat provided.” Sally had tried to dissuade her from answering the advertisement, but she, Viola, had known that what she most needed was the warmth and highly romantic flavor of the Mediterranean.

She’d consulted their old friend, Dr. Mowbray. “You’ve been telling me I need a holiday in the south of France, but you also know I couldn’t afford it. Barcelona may not have quite the atmosphere you prescribed, but I do know it a little. It’s sunny and gay, and would give me a tremendous boost. I do have to find a post of some sort, and this one seems heaven-sent, if I can get it.”

The doctor had looked dubious. “You’d take Sally, I suppose?”

“Yes, of course.”

“She’s just starting her second year at St. Alun’s. She won’t want to give it up.”

“If they employ English beauty consultants they’ll take an English nurse, I suppose. After all, the English-speaking people out there are bound to get ill sometimes.”

“Couldn’t you two manage a month’s holiday at Biarritz, or somewhere?”

Forlornly, she had told him, “It wouldn’t be enough. If I stay here in England I’ll never recover from Richard’s death. I depended on him for everything, and now, even though it’s nearly a year since I lost him, I feel quite adrift. The winter has been so cold and wet and I’ve hardly been able to get out at all. Don’t you think the climate of southern Spain would be good for me?”

“Of course it would; even thinking about it seems to have built you up a little. But I don’t like to think of Sally being wrenched away from St. Alun’s.”

Viola had felt quite neglected and pettish. “Young people love change, and to travel. After a few months in Barcelona I may be able to do without her. Then she could come back and complete her training.”

“You seem already to have made up your mind,” Dr. Mowbray had said drily. “But perhaps it’s not too late for a word of warning. This post you’re applying for may not be as good as it seems. Before you go, you should find out all you can about the man who advertised.”

At the time she’d thought, “How like a man, to distrust everything foreign!” But now, sitting in the taxi behind a grubby moustachioed driver who hadn’t a word of English, and waiting for Sally to beckon her from that dim little doorway through which she had disappeared, Viola Sheppard felt rather less confident and uncomfortably near to tears.

It had been so pleasant on the ship from England. They’d made friends, had even, she felt tremulously, made a conquest or two. She had hated arriving in Barcelona this morning and saying goodbye, knowing that some of the others were continuing on the cruise right through the Mediterranean to Rome and Sicily. It had been like cutting oneself off from a new, exciting home. And Barcelona, for all its fine
ramblas
and medieval city tucked away behind them, seemed so different from the lively fiesta town she had visited on her honeymoon. She didn’t recall it at all. But in those days she had been young and emotional and so wholly dependent on her darling Richard; Barcelona had meant simply sunshine and bunting and music and chattering people who hadn’t looked quite so Spanish in the mass as they did individually.

And now here she was in a back street of one of the poor districts, wishing she had never let Sally get out of the taxi, wishing that...

She drew a sharp breath of relief. Here was Sally now, hurrying from that hole in the black stone wall and swinging open the door of the taxi as if demons were after her.

“What is it, darling?” Viola asked in thin anxious tones. “Isn’t it the correct address?”

Sally sank into the place beside her mother and leaned forward. “Take us back to the Rambla de las Flores,” she said to the driver. “Quickly, please!”

The girl was pale and trembling a little, but she smiled at her mother. “Don’t worry. We’ll work out something. I’m only glad you didn’t go in with me.”

“But what happened?” demanded Viola, her voice rising. “You look as if you’ve had the most dreadful shock.”

“I suppose I have.” Sally’s lower lip was drawn between her teeth for a moment. “There was a woman in that house—a coarse creature. She ... she laughed at me.”

“Laughed?” Viola was totally bewildered. “What did she laugh about?”

The taxi jolted out of a narrow street into a wider one, and Sally let out a sigh of complete relief. She asked, “Did you send money to that man who engaged you?”

Viola nodded. “Fifty pounds. I didn’t like to tell you about it. The man wrote that it was a ... a sort of fidelity bond and said he would return it as soon as I arrived. Didn’t you see him at all?”

“He’s a confidence man. The police took him away a couple of days ago.”

“Oh, no!”

“I’m afraid so. He’s been doing this sort of thing throughout France and Spain, but finally the police caught up with him. We haven’t any hope of getting posts here, even if we could get the necessary permits. That was why the woman laughed.”

“Oh, but—Sally! What are we going to do?”

They were entering one of the side streets that led down to the Rambla de las Flores, and Sally placed her hand over her mother’s and nodded towards the buildings. “We’re nearly there. This is horrible, but don’t let’s get upset about it. We can afford to stay at the hotel for a few nights while we make plans. Please don’t worry. There are two of us, after all.”

But Viola Sheppard’s tears gently overflowed. “What a fool I am. I made you come here, Sally. You gave up St. Alun’s...”

“You mustn’t blame yourself. You’re fifty pounds short, but apart from that nothing dreadful has happened. We had a lovely ten days on the ship and it’s done you lots of good. At the worst, we’ll have a few days in Barcelona and then do the homeward trip.”

“But, darling, I can’t bear the thought of going back! You don’t know how much I’m depending on ... Oh, dear, there’s nothing to depend on, is there? I don’t seem able to manage my life any more. When your father...”

“Please,” whispered Sally desperately. “The taxi is stopping and you mustn’t look so distressed in the street. You do have me to depend on, you know.”

Viola’s sweet smile shone through tears. “It’s lucky you’re not like me, isn’t it? You’re small and slim as I am, but you have a backbone and I haven’t. Do you think we could get a cup of tea?”

The sudden change from despair to a plea for the commonplace was just what Sally had needed. She gave an unsteady little laugh, said, “Of course we can,” and helped her mother out of the taxi. She paid the driver, and as the taxi moved away she drew a long breath and looked down the great wide thoroughfare that was thronged with people and gay with color.

It was four o’clock and Barcelona was getting into its stride after siesta. Under bright parasols stood the vendors of all kinds of flowers and fruits, of cage birds and tortoises, of kittens and goldfish and even of tiny monkeys.

Sally became aware, as she and her mother moved slowly along the pavement, that they were being extracted from the crowd like a couple of unusual specimens in a zoology class. These men who sat drinking coffee or wine and talking business, broke off to watch the passing of the neat
senora
in pale grey with lavender hair and dainty feet and the very blonde
senorita
in white and pink. The older one was beautiful, like fragile china. The young one was tanned a honey-brown, like a tourist, her hair was cut short and her eyes were a dark and velvety blue; she made one think of a soft summer night, of roses and oleanders peeping over a rough stone wall and of guitars sending out their eternal, vibrant message of love. The men thought, shrugged their regrets and went back to their wine and business.

Their glances did not register very deeply with Sally. She was frightened. Not for anything would she have described to her mother the full horror of her visit to that gloomy little hovel, but it had shaken her to the roots.

Back in England, when her mother had coaxed and argued and pleaded, Sally had felt that in pointing out the defects of the proposed move to Barcelona she was being selfish and brutal. She had been only too willing to agree that her mother needed a long holiday in a warm climate, but the idea of Viola Sheppard, the beloved and much-spoiled wife of Richard Sheppard, holding down a job in a foreign city that she had visited only once, more than twenty years ago, had seemed at the least fantastic. Then Viola had suggested that Sally wasn’t interested in her mother’s health, that all she cared about was her own nursing career. That had hurt, because Sally had put up with a good deal of inconvenience and long bus journeys so that her mother should not live alone in the Kensington flat. But she had understood Viola’s reaction. When a woman has been lovingly cared for for twenty years and then suddenly found the love and protection withdrawn, a break-up is almost inevitable.

After the first month or two of demoralizing loneliness her mother had tried quite hard to get back into the world. For a while she had assisted in the West End beauty salon run by one of her friends, but that phase had ended when she caught ’flu and developed congestion of the lungs. She had got through all right, but the illness had run away with an enormous amount of money. Doctor and specialist, nurses, a daily servant, fresh flowers for the bedroom, fine bed-jackets and wraps and nightdresses, new bed-linen in pastel tints, new curtains and bed-cover, a new armchair in the bedroom; Sally hadn’t begrudged her mother a single item that might help her to get well. But it had been alarming, afterwards, to discover how little ready money was left.

Eventually, Viola herself was forced to mention it. “Mowbray says I definitely need at least a month in a warm climate, and that I may have to spend next winter abroad. How on earth are we going to manage it, Sally? I’d have to look for a post of some sort, but what could I do? My only working experience has been the few months at the beauty salon.”

“We could probably manage a month for you at one of the smaller French resorts,” Sally had said. “You wouldn’t have to think about anything till you got back.”

“And next winter?” Viola had demanded a little querulously. “I couldn’t face that horrible lung congestion again. I really couldn’t.”

Sally had known her mother was watching the small-ads; they had discussed one or two possibilities and discarded them. Then came the opportunity in Barcelona, and Viola had said, quite excitedly,

“It was made just for me! Running a beauty shop is all I can do, and Barcelona does happen to be a town I’ve toured. I’m going to write to this man, Sally. I must!”

No harm in a letter, Sally had decided. But quite soon there had been two or three letters between Mrs. Sheppard and the man in Barcelona. And in the end, because for the first time since Richard Sheppard had died her mother was alert and happy, and because she herself could see no way of paying for her mother to spend next winter in a warm climate, Sally gave in. With a bright smile and a heavy heart she had resigned from St. Alun’s, booked passages on the “Bellesta” and watched her mother sign away the flat.

She had to admit that those ten days on the ship had been wonderful ... and heartbreaking. Everyone fell in love in the moonlight on deck, of course, but Sally hadn’t thought of that when Peter Mailing had kissed her and told her she was beautiful.

“There aren’t so many men at this cafe,” Viola was saying plaintively. “It’s awfully warm, for March, and my feet ache. I suppose it’s the hard pavements after wearing sandals on deck. Shall we sit?”

They took seats at a table on the edge of the pavement cafe and ordered tea. Well, here we are, thought Sally bleakly. Barcelona ... no less; the most dazzling city on the Spanish coast. And all she wanted was to get away again as fast as possible, to leave behind the bad taste of the woman in the hovel, and of failure.

“Look over there,” her mother murmured eagerly. “Some of the people from the ship, and Marcus is with them. He’s seen us—I’m so glad!”

But as she saw him Sally was instantly aware of that oddly awkward feeling that Marcus Durant had roused in her on board. He was something over thirty, very dark and good-looking in a rather unusual way. His features were long, his cheekbones high, but instead of the usual straight nose which is normal to such bone structure his nose was long and slightly humped at the bridge, the septum well defined. He was like a handsome hawk, and Sally had no experience of hawks, handsome or otherwise. That was why she had spoken to him on the ship only when he had addressed her. He made her feel young and inadequate and even a bit laughable. And no girl of nineteen cares to feel that she has stirred only patronage and amusement in a good-looking bachelor.

But Viola had liked him immensely. “He’s a real man—British with a dash of Spanish—which means that he knows how to treat a woman. He’s charming and worldly and very rich!”

BOOK: Perchance to Marry
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