BY ANN BRIDGE
If You Missed the Earlier Chapters . . .
BACK home in England, Almina Prestwich had been considered far from pretty — in fact, by some she was thought to be downright plain. (The vogue of the platinum blonde was unknown in 1905.) But when she arrived in Italy — where she assumed the post of governess to fifteen-year-old Marietta, the only child of the Marchcse Francesco di Vill’ Alta and his wife, Suzy — the impression she made was a very different one. There her pale looks, coupled with her reticence and propriety, aroused other and quite different sentiments. To the ninety-nine-year-old Marchesa, Marietta’s grandmother, and to Fräulein ’Gela’ Gelsicher, former governess to Count Carlo di Castellone s children, Giulio and Elena, and since his wife’s death general factotum at Odredo, the Count’s estate near Vill’ Alta — to these two, to be sure, Almina seemed, despite her obvious attainments, thoroughly unsuitable. (The contingent of cousins from Castellone itself — the spinster countesses, Aspasia and Roma, and Countess Livia, the redheaded Roffredo’s mother — disapproved of her also, but on principle.)
To the Marchese Francesco, however, she proved a delight by reason of her knowledge of botany, since she was therefore able to provide for his painting those specimens which his nearsightedness prevented him from finding for himself. Marietta adored her; the mischievous Elena liked her, although lamenting her lack of sophistication; while the cousins, Giulio and Roffredo, promptly fell in love with her. But it was Suzy, Marietta’s beautiful and alluring mother, whose active enmity ‘the little Postiche’ — as Count Carlo had immediately nicknamed Miss Prestwich — was unwittingly to incur: for she, tiring of her liaison with Count Carlo, had begun to exert her charms on the fiery young inventor, Roffredo, and her subsequent discovery that the governess, albeit without intention or even consciously, had already engaged his attentions was infuriating.
Almina herself was — owing largely to her rigid and uninformed Victorian upbringing wholly unprepared for the complications engendered by the latter situation. Of love she knew no more than the innocuous English novels of her day had taught her. But the unhappy plight of the Marchesa Nadia, wife of the philandering Pipo di Vill’ Alta, over whose affairs a consiglio di famiglia had even been held, was to give her an inkling of how difficult that overpowering emotion could be, and to what lengths of desperation it could drive one. . . .