Vanished: Excerpt

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Chapter One

Charles Delauney limped only slightly as he walked slowly up the steps of Saint Patrick’s Cathedral, as a bitter wind reached its icy fingers deep into his collar. It was two weeks before Christmas, and he had forgotten how cold it was in New York in December. It was years since he’d been back to New York. . . years since he’d seen his father. His father was eighty-seven now, his mother had been gone for years. She died when he was thirteen, and all he could remember of her was that she had been very beautiful, and very gentle. His father was senile and ill, bedridden and infirm. The attorneys had insisted that Charles come home, at least for a few months, to try and get the family affairs in order. He had no siblings and the entire burden of the Delauney affairs rested on his shoulders. Landholdings throughout the state, an enormous estate near Newburgh, New York, coal, oil, steel, and some very important real estate in downtown Manhattan. A fortune that had been amassed not by Charles, or even by his father, but by both of his grandfathers. And none of it interested Charles for a single moment.

His face was young, but weather-lined, and showed the wear of pain and battle. He had just spent almost two years in Spain, fighting for a cause that was not his own, but about which he cared deeply. It was one of the few things he did care about. . . something he truly burned for. He had joined the Lincoln Brigade to fight the Fascists almost two years before, in February of 1937, and he’d been in Spain ever since, fighting the battle. In August he had been wounded again, near Gandesa during the battle of Ebro, in a ferocious confrontation. It was not the first time he had been wounded. At fifteen, in the last year of the Great War, he had run away and joined the army and been wounded in the leg at Saint-Mihiel. His father had been furious about it then. But there was nothing he could do now. He knew nothing of the world, or his son, or the fight in Spain. He no longer even recognized Charles, and perhaps, Charles had decided as he watched him sleeping in his enormous bed, perhaps it was better. They would have argued and fought. He would have hated what his son had become, his ideas about freedom and liberty, his hatred of “fascists.” His father had always disapproved of his living abroad. Born late in his father’s life, it made no sense to the elder Delauney that Charles wanted to live over there, raising hell in Europe. Charles had gone back to Europe at eighteen, in 1921, and had lived there for seventeen years since then, working occasionally for friends, or selling an occasional short story in his youth, but in recent years primarily living from his very substantial trust fund. The size of his income had always irritated him. “No normal man needs that much money to live on,” he’d once confided to a close friend, and for years he’d given most of his income to charitable causes, although he still derived great pleasure from making a small sum from one of his short stories.

He had studied at Oxford, and then at the Sorbonne, and finally, for a brief while, he had gone to Florence. He had been more than a little wild in those days. Drinking as much fine Bordeaux as he could consume, an occasional absinthe, and carousing with a fascinating array of women. At twenty-one, he had thought himself a man of the world, after three very uncontrolled years in Europe. He had met people others only read about, did things few men dreamed, and met women others only longed for. And then. . . there had been Marielle. . . but that was another story. A story he tried not to let himself think of anymore. The memory of her was still too painful.

She wandered into his dreams at night sometimes, especially when he was in danger, or afraid, asleep in a trench somewhere, with bullets whistling past his head. . . and then the memory of her crept in. . . her face. . . those unforgettable eyes. . . her lips. . . and the bottomless sorrow she wore like a wound the last time he saw her. He hadn’t seen her since, and that was almost seven years before. Seven years without seeing her, touching her. . . holding her. . . or even knowing where she was, and telling himself it no longer mattered. Once, when he was wounded and convinced he would die, he had allowed himself to wallow in the memories, and the medics had found him unconscious in a pool of blood, but when he awoke, he could have sworn he saw her standing just behind them.

She had been only eighteen when they met in Paris. She had a face so beautiful and alive it looked as though it had been freshly painted. He had been twenty-three, and he had seen her as he sat in a cafe with a friend. He had been taken with her instantly as he watched her. And as she glanced at him, she had a face full of mischief. She had run away then, back to her hotel, but he had seen her again, at an ambassador’s dinner. They had been introduced formally, and everything had been very circumspect except Marielle still had those laughing eyes that had bowled him over. But her parents were far less taken with him. Her father was a serious man, much older than his wife, and he knew of Charles’s reputation. Her father was a contemporary of his own father’s, and Charles thought they knew each other slightly. Her mother was half French, and always seemed to Charles to be incredibly proper and extremely dreary. They kept Marielle on a ridiculously short leash, and insisted that she dance attendance on them every moment. They had no idea what a flirt she was, or how funny she could be too. But there was a serious side to her as well, and Charles found he could talk to her by the hour. She had been vastly amused to discover him at the embassy, and remembered seeing him at the cafe, although she didn’t admit it to him, until much later when he teased her. He was fascinated by her, and she by him. To her, he was a very intriguing young man, unlike any she had ever known. She seemed to want to know everything about him, where he came from, why he was there, how he came to speak such good French. And she was impressed from the first by his ambitions and abilities as a writer. She painted a little, she’d explained to him rather shyly at first. And later when they knew each other better, she had shown him some astoundingly good drawings. But that first night, it was neither literature nor art which appealed to either of them, it was something in their souls which drew them irrevocably together. Her parents noticed it too, and after her mother had seen them chatting with each other for a while, she attempted to pull Marielle away and introduce her to some other young people who had been invited. But Charles had followed her everywhere, a ghost who could no longer stand to be without her.

They met at the Deux Magots the following afternoon, and afterward went for a long walk along the Seine, like two mischievous children. She told him everything about herself, her life, her dreams, of wanting to be an artist one day, and then marrying someone she loved and having nine or ten children. He was less amused by that but fascinated by her. There was something ephemeral and delicate and wonderful about the girl, and yet underneath it something powerful and resilient and alive. She was like lace delicately placed over exquisitely carved white marble. Even her skin had the translucence of the statues he’d seen in Florence when he first arrived from the States, and her eyes shone like deep blue sapphires as she listened to how he felt about his own dreams about writing. He hoped, one day, to publish a collection of his short stories. She seemed to understand everything, and to care so much about all the things that mattered so deeply to him.

Her parents had taken her to Deauville, and he had followed her there, and then on to Rome. . . Pompeii. . . Capri. . . London and finally back to Paris. Everywhere she went, he had friends, and he would conveniently appear, and as often as possible go for long walks with her, or escort her to balls, and spend extremely boring evenings with her parents. But she was like a drug to him now, and wherever he was, wherever he went, he knew he had to have her. Absinthe had never been as fascinating as this girl. And by August. . . in Rome. . . as she looked at him, her eyes were filled with the same unbridled passion.

Her parents were nervous about him, but they knew the family after all, and he was well mannered, intelligent, and it was difficult to ignore the fact that he was the sole heir to an enormous fortune. The fortune meant nothing to Marielle, her parents were comfortable, and it was something she never thought about. She thought only about Charles, the strength of his hands, his shoulders, his arms, the wild look in his eyes after they kissed, the chiseled beauty of his features, like an ancient Greek coin, the gentleness of his hands when he touched her body.

He had no intention of ever returning to the States, he’d explained early on, he and his father hadn’t gotten along since he’d gone off to the war at fifteen, and returning to New York afterward had been a nightmare. He felt as though the place was too small for him, too boring, too restrictive. Too much was expected of him, and they were all things he had no intention of doing. Social obligations, family responsibilities, learning about investments and holdings and trusts, and the things his father bought and sold which one day he would inherit. There was more to life than that, Charles had explained to Marielle as he ran long, gentle fingers through her silky cinnamon-colored hair, which hung long past her shoulders. She was a tall girl, but she was dwarfed next to him, and with him she felt delicate and frail and yet wonderfully protected.

He had lived in Paris for five years when they met, and it was obvious that he adored it. His life was there, his friends, his writing, his soul, his inspiration. But in September, she was due to sail home on the Paris. To the gentle life they had in store for her, to the men she would meet, and the girls who were her friends, and the small but elegant brownstone on East Sixty-second. In no way did it compare with the Delauney home, only ten blocks north, but it was respectable certainly. . . respectable. . . and very boring. In no way did it compare with his garret on the rue du Bac, rented to him by an impoverished noblewoman who owned the entire hÙtel particulier below it. Charles had taken Marielle there one day, and they had all but made love. But at the last moment, he had come to his senses, and left the room hastily for a few moments to compose himself. And when he returned with a serious air, he sat down next to her on the bed, as she tried to straighten her dress and regain her composure.

“I’m sorry. . . ” His dark hair and fiery green eyes made him look even more dramatic, but there was an anguished air about him too, which always touched her. She had never known anyone even remotely like him, or done the things she suddenly wanted to do with him. She knew she was losing her head over him, but she couldn’t help it.

“Marielle. . . ” He spoke very gently as the soft reddish brown hair concealed half her face. “I can’t do this anymore. . . you’re driving me mad.” But he was doing the same to her, and she loved it. Neither of them had ever felt anything like this before.

She smiled at him, seeming very old and wise, as he leaned over and kissed her. He felt almost drunk when he was near her. The only thing he knew for sure was that he didn’t want to lose her. Not now, not ever. He didn’t want to go back to New York for her, now or later, to plead for her hand, or negotiate with her father. He didn’t want to wait another hour. He wanted her now. In this room, in this house. In Paris. He wanted her with him always. “Marielle?” He looked at her very soberly and her eyes grew dark.

“Yes?” She spoke very softly. She was so young, yet she was so in love with him, and he knew her well enough to sense how strong her spirit.

“Will you marry me?”

He heard her gasp, and then she laughed. “Are you serious?”

“I am. . . God knows. . . will you?” He was terrified. What if she said no? His whole life seemed to depend on what she would say in the next minute. What if she wouldn’t marry him? What if she wanted to go home with her parents after all? What if it was only a game to her? But he knew from the look in her eyes that his worries were foolish.

“When?” She was giggling she was so excited.

“Now.” And he meant it.

“You’re not serious.”

“I am.” He stood up and began to pace the room, like a very handsome young lion, running a hand through his hair as he made plans and watched her. “I am very serious, Marielle.” He stopped dead and looked at her, everything about him taut and electric. “You still haven’t answered my question.” He rushed to her side, and held her tightly in his arms until she laughed he was being so absurd.

“You’re crazy.”

“Yes, I am. And so are you. Will you?” He held her tighter and she pretended to scream. He held her tighter still, and she laughed uncontrollably and then he kissed her, teasing her until he forced an answer from her lips between the kisses.

“Yes. . . yes. . . yes . . . I will.” She was breathless, and they were both smiling. “When will you ask my father?” She sat back with a blissful expression, and Charles’s face clouded over.

“He’ll never agree. And if he does, he’ll insist we go back to the States and start a serious life there where he can watch us.” He looked like a caged lion again as he spoke and once more began to pace the room. “I’ll tell you right now, I won’t do that.”

“Won’t ask my father, or go back to New York?” She looked suddenly worried, as she stretched her long, graceful legs in front of her, and he tried desperately not to notice.

“New York, for sure. . . and. . . ” He stopped and looked at her again, his black hair looking wild, his eyes boring into hers. “What if we elope?”

“Here?” She looked stunned, and he nodded. He was serious, she knew him well enough to know that. “My God, they’ll kill me.”

“I won’t let them.” He sat down next to her, as they both thought it over. “You sail in two weeks, if we’re going to do it, we’d better do it quickly.” She nodded quietly, thinking it over, weighing it in her mind, but she already knew there was no choice, no question, no decision. She would have gone to the end of the world with him. And when he kissed her again, she was certain.

“Do you think they’ll forgive us eventually?” She was concerned about them as well. Like him, she was an only child, and her father was so much older. And they expected so much of her, particularly her mother. Marielle had been presented to Society in New York the winter before, and now they had done the Grand Tour, their expectation was that in a short while, she would find a suitable husband. And in some ways, Charles was certainly that, in terms of his family at least, but there was no denying that his life-style was, at the present time, a little eccentric. But in time, her father would say, he would settle down. But when she tried to broach the subject to him that night, he suggested that she wait until he did that.

“Wait and see how you like him when he comes back to New York, my dear. And in the meantime, there are lots of handsome young men waiting for you there. There’s no need to fall head over heels over this one.” A young Vanderbilt had pursued her for a time that spring, and there was a handsome young Astor her mother had her eye on. But they were of no interest to Marielle now, and never had been. And she had no intention of waiting for Charles to move back to New York. She was quite certain he never would, not the way he felt about New York, or even the United States, and more specifically his father. He was happy where he was, he had flourished in the past five years. Paris suited him to perfection.

They eloped three days before her parents were to set sail, leaving a note for her parents at the Hotel Crillon. She felt more than a little guilty about the grief they would feel, but on the other hand, she knew her parents well enough to know that they’d be pleased she was marrying a Delauney. She wasn’t entirely right on that score, given the reputation Charles had for running wild, but it certainly soothed them a little. Her note had urged them to go ahead and set sail, and she and Charles would come to New York to visit them over Christmas, but they were not as cavalier as that, and they waited patiently, and very angrily, for the young lovers’ return, with every hope of annulling the marriage and squelching the entire affair before it became a proper scandal. Of course the ambassador knew what she’d done, because they’d sought his help, and he had made discreet inquiries. But all he knew was that they had gotten married in Nice, and he had reason to believe they had driven across the border into Italy shortly after.

They had an exquisite honeymoon in Umbria, Tuscany, Rome, Venice, Florence, Lake Como, they had ventured into Switzerland, and two months later, as October drew to a close, they made their way leisurely back to Paris. Her parents were still at the Crillon and when the honeymooners returned, there was a note waiting for them at Charles’s lodgings.

Marielle couldn’t believe they were still there, but she was amazed to discover that they had indeed waited. And two months had done nothing to warm their hearts on the subject of their only daughter’s elopement. When Marielle and Charles appeared at the hotel hand in hand, looking happy and peaceful, they demanded that Charles leave at once, and announced that they were setting the annulment en route in the morning.

“I wouldn’t do that if I were you,” Marielle said quietly, causing Charles to smile at the firm stand she took on his behalf. For a shy, quiet girl, she had a remarkable way of taking extremely definitive positions. And he was pleased that this was one of those times. Pleased, and a moment later, very startled.

“Don’t you tell me what to do!” her father roared at her, and at the same time her mother ranted about how ungrateful she was, how dangerous her life would be with Charles, how they had only wanted her happiness, and now it was all ruined. It made a Greek chorus to the ears, and Marielle stood in the eye of the storm, watching them all calmly. At eighteen, she had suddenly become a woman, and one Charles knew he was going to adore for an entire lifetime.

“I can’t get an annulment, Papa.” Marielle spoke quietly again. “I’m having a baby.”

This time Charles stared, and then suddenly he was amused. It was most likely not true, but it was the perfect way to make them give up the idea of an annulment. But as soon as she said the words, all hell broke loose, her mother cried louder still, and her father sat down and began to gasp, insisting he was having chest pains. Her mother said Marielle was killing him, and when the old man was ushered from the room, with his good wife’s help, Charles suggested that they go back to the rue du Bac, and discuss the matter with his in-laws later. He and Marielle left shortly afterward, and as they walked a few blocks in the warm air, Charles looked vastly amused as he pulled her close to him and kissed her.

“That was brilliant. I should have thought of it myself.”

“It wasn’t brilliant.” She looked amused too. “It’s true.” She looked very pleased with herself, the little girl she had been only moments before was now going to be a mother. He looked stunned.

“Are you serious?”

She nodded her head and looked up at him.

“When did that happen?” He looked startled more than worried.

“I’m not sure. . . Rome?. . . maybe Venice. . . I wasn’t entirely sure until last week.”

“Well, you sneaky little thing. . . ” But as he held her close to him, he looked pleased. “And when is the Delauney heir due?”

“June, I think. Something like that.”

He had never given much thought to being a father. It should have frightened him, given the life he’d led of such great freedom, but the truth was he was thrilled. He hailed a cab for her, and they rode home toward the rue du Bac, kissing in the backseat like two children, instead of two prospective parents.

Her own parents were just as distraught the next day, but after two weeks of arguments, they finally relented. Marielle’s mother had taken her to an American doctor on the Champs-ElysÈes, and there was no doubt about it, she was pregnant. The idea of an annulment was out of the question. And their daughter was certainly happy enough. And like it or not, they knew they had to live with the reality of Charles Delauney. He promised them, before they finally left, to get a better apartment, a maid, a nurse for the child, a car. He was going to become a “respectable man,” her father extracted from him. But respectable or not, the obvious fact was that the two were deliriously happy.

Marielle’s parents left shortly after that on the France, and after all the excitement and fuss and strain and exhaustion of dealing with them, she and Charles agreed that they were not going to New York for Christmas, or maybe ever. They were happy in their garret on the Left Bank, with their life together, his friends, even his writing had never been better. In Paris, in 1926, for one brief shining moment, life had been perfect. As Charles pulled open the enormously heavy cathedral doors, even his bones felt chilled, and the leg throbbed more than usual. It had been just as bitter a winter in Europe. It had been so long since he’d been in New York, so long since he’d been in a church, as he walked inside and looked up at the enormous vaulted ceiling. In some ways, he was sorry he had come. It was depressing to see his father so ill, and so unaware of his surroundings and those around him. For an instant, he had seemed to recognize Charles, and then the moment passed, the eyes were blank and then closed as his father dozed heavily on his pillows. It made Charles feel lonely whenever he watched him. It was as though the older Delauney was already gone. He might as well have been. And for Charles, there was no one left now. They were all gone. . . even the friends he had fought with in Spain. There were almost too many to pray for.

He watched a priest in black robes cross his path, and Charles walked slowly to the back of the church, to a tiny altar. Two nuns prayed there, and the younger of the two smiled at him as he knelt stiffly beside them. His black hair was flecked with gray, but his eyes still had the same electricity they’d had when he was fifteen, and he still exuded energy and strength and power. Even the young nun could feel it. But there was sorrow in his eyes too as he bowed his head, and thought of all of them, the people who had meant so much to him, those he had loved, those he had fought with. But he had not come here to pray for them. He had come here because it was the anniversary of the worst day of his life. . . nine years before. . . two weeks before Christmas. A day he would never forget. . . the day he had almost killed her. He had been insane, out of his mind with rage and pain. . . a pain so terrible he truly couldn’t bear it. He wanted to tear her limb from limb to make it stop, to turn back the clock, to make it not happen. . . and yet he had loved her so much. . . loved them both. . . he couldn’t bear thinking of it now, as he bowed his head, unable to pray for him or her, or himself, or anyone, unable to think. . . the pain of it still so great, barely dim, the only difference was that now he seldom allowed himself to think about it. But when he touched the place in his heart where they still lived, the pain of it still took his breath away, and he almost couldn’t bear it. A tear ran slowly down his cheek as he stared unseeingly straight ahead and the young nun watched him. He knelt that way for a long time, seeing nothing, thinking of them, and what had been in a life that was no more, in a place he seldom allowed himself to remember. But today, he had wanted to come here just to feel a little closer to them. And it always made it worse that the date fell just before Christmas.

In Spain he would have found a church somewhere, a little chapel, a shack, and he would have had the same thoughts, the same excruciating pain too, but in the simplicity of his life there, there would have been comfort. Here, there was nothing, except strangers in a vast cathedral and cold gray stone, not unlike the cold gray stone of the mansion he now shared with his dying father. And as he stood up slowly, he knew he would not stay long in the States. He wanted to get back to Spain before much longer. He was needed there. He wasn’t needed in New York, except by lawyers and bankers, and he cared nothing for that. He never had. If anything, he cared less now than he had years before. He had never become the “respectable man” his father-in-law had dreamed of. He smiled at the thought, as he remembered his in-laws, they were dead now too. Everyone was. At thirty-five, Charles Delauney felt as though he had already lived ten lifetimes.

He stood for a long time, looking at the statue of the Madonna and child. . . remembering them. . . and then he walked slowly back the way he had come, feeling worse than he had before, instead of better. He wanted to feel close to AndrÈ again, wanted to feel him close to him, the delicious warmth of his flesh, the softness of his cheek, the tiny hand that had always held his so tightly.

Charles was blinded by tears as he walked slowly back toward the main door of the cathedral. The leg seemed to pain him more, and the wind was whistling through the church, as something happened to him which hadn’t happened in a long time. But it used to happen frequently. Sometimes even on the battlefield, he imagined he saw her.

He saw her in the distance now, swathed in furs, walking past him, like a ghost, going toward something he couldn’t see, unable to see him. He stood for a long moment, watching her, aching for her again, as he hadn’t in so long, a memory come to life, as he stared, and then he realized it was no ghost, it was a woman who looked just like her. She was tall and thin and serious, and very beautiful. She was wearing a somber black dress covered by a sable coat that almost swept the floor and seemed to frame her face with softness. A hat tried to conceal all but one eye, but even with so little of her visible, it was as though he sensed her, the way she moved, the way she looked, the way she quietly took off one black glove, and then sank to her knees at another small altar. She was as graceful as she had ever been, as long and lean, except now she seemed so much thinner. She covered her face with graceful hands, and for a long time she seemed to be praying. He knew why. They had both come here for the same reason. It was Marielle, he realized as he stared at her, unable to believe it.

It seemed an eternity before she turned and looked at him, but when she did, it was obvious that she hadn’t seen him. She lit four candles, and slipped some money into the collection box, and then she stood and stared at the altar again, and there were tears on her cheeks too. And then, head bowed, she pulled the fur coat more tightly around her. She began to walk slowly between the pews, as though her whole body ached, and her soul with it. She was only inches from him, when he gently reached out a hand and stopped her. She looked startled when he did, and she glanced up at him with a look of astonishment, as though she had been wakened from a distant dream. But as she looked into his eyes, she gasped and stared at him. Her hand flew to her mouth, her eyes brimmed with the tears she had shed at the altar.

Excerpted from Vanished by Danielle Steel. Excerpted by permission of Dell, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.