At Easter vacation, in her final year at school, when she was eighteen, Elizabeth went to the villa in Sardinia to spend ten days. She had learned to drive, and for the first time she was free to explore the island on her own. She took long drives along the beaches and visited tiny fishing villages. She swam at the villa, under the warm Mediterranean sun, and at night lay in her bed listening to the mournful sound of the singing rocks, as the wind gently blew through them. She went to a carnival in Tempio, where the entire village dressed up in national costumes. Hidden behind the anonymity of domino masks, the girls invited the boys to dance, and everyone felt free to do things they would not dare do at any other time. A boy might think he knew which girl he made love to that night, but the next morning he could not be certain. It was, Elizabeth thought, like an entire village playing The Guardsman.
She drove to Punta Murra and watched the Sar-dos cook small lambs on open fires. The native islanders gave her seada, a goat cheese covered in a dough, with hot honey over it. She drank the delicious selememont, the local white wine that could be had nowhere else in the world because it was too delicate to travel.
One of Elizabeth's favorite haunts was the Red Lion Inn at Porto Cervo. It was a little pub in a basement, with ten tables for dining, and an old-fashioned bar.
Elizabeth dubbed that vacation the Time of the Boys. They were the sons of the rich, and they came in swarms, inviting Elizabeth to a constant round of swimming and riding parties. It was the first move in the mating rite.
"They're all highly eligible," Elizabeth's father assured her.
To Elizabeth they were all clods. They drank too much, talked too much and pawed her. She was sure they wanted her not for herself, because she might be an intelligent or worthwhile human being, but because she was a Roffe, heiress to the Roffe dynasty. Elizabeth had no idea that she had grown into a beauty, for it was easier to believe the truth of the past than the reflection in her mirror.
The boys wined and dined her and tried to get her into bed. They sensed that Elizabeth was a virgin, and some aberration in the male ego deluded each boy into the conviction that if he could take away Elizabeth's virginity, she would fall madly in love with him and be his slave forever. They refused to give up. No matter where they took Elizabeth, the evenings always ended up the same. "Let's go to bed." And always she politely refused them.
They did not know what to make of her. They knew she was beautiful, so it followed that she must be stupid. It never occurred to them that she was more intelligent than they. Who ever heard of a girl being both beautiful and intelligent?
And so Elizabeth went out with the boys to please her father, but they all bored her.
Rhys Williams came to the villa, and Elizabeth was surprised at how excited and pleased she was to see him again. He was even more attractive than she had remembered.
Rhys seemed glad to see her. "What's happened to you?" he asked.
"What do you mean?"
"Have you looked in your mirror lately?"
She blushed. "No."
He turned to Sam. "Unless the boys are all deaf, dumb and blind, I have a feeling Liz isn't going to be with us much longer."
Us! Elizabeth enjoyed hearing him say that. She hung around the two men as much as she dared, serving them drinks, running errands, for them, enjoying just looking at Rhys. Sometimes Elizabeth would sit in the background, listening as they discussed business affairs, and she was fascinated. They spoke of mergers and of new factories, and products that had succeeded and others that had failed, and why. They talked about their competitors, and planned strategies and counter-strategies. To Elizabeth it was all heady stuff.
One day when Sam was up in the tower room, working, Rhys invited Elizabeth to lunch. She took him to the Red Lion and watched him shoot darts with the men at the bar. Elizabeth marveled at how much at home Rhys was. He seemed to fit in anywhere. She had heard a Spanish expression that she had never understood, but she did now as she watched Rhys. He's a man easy in his skin.
They sat at a small corner table with a red-andwhite tablecloth, and had shepherd's pie and ale, and they talked. Rhys asked her about school.
"It's really not too bad," Elizabeth confessed. "I'm learning how little I know."
Rhys smiled. "Very few people get that far. You finish in June, don't you?"
Elizabeth wondered how he had known. "Yes."
"Do you know what you want to do after that?"
It was the question she had been asking herself. "No. Not really."
"Interested in getting married?"
For one quick instant her heart missed a beat. Then she realized that it was a general question. "I haven't found anyone yet" She thought of Mlle. Harriot and the cozy dinners in front of the fireplace and the snow falling, and she laughed aloud.
"Secret?" Rhys asked.
"Secret." She wished she could share it with him, but she did not know him well enough. The truth was, Elizabeth realized, that she did not know Rhys at all. He was a charming, handsome stranger who had once taken pity on her and flown her to Paris for a birthday dinner. She knew that he was brilliant in business and that her father depended on him. But she knew nothing about his personal life, or what he was really like. Watching him, Elizabeth had the feeling that he was a many-layered man, that the emotions he showed were to conceal the emotions he felt, and Elizabeth wondered if anyone really knew him.
It was Rhys Williams who was responsible for Elizabeth's losing her virginity.
The idea of going to bed with a man had become more and more appealing to Elizabeth. Part of it was the strong physical urge that sometimes caught her unaware and gripped her in waves of frustration, an urgent physical ache that would not leave. But there was also a strong curiosity, the need to know what it was like. She could not go to bed with just anyone, of course. He had to be someone special, someone she could cherish, someone who would cherish her.
On a Saturday night Elizabeth's father gave a gala at the villa.
"Put on your most beautiful dress," Rhys told Elizabeth. "I want to show you off to everyone."
Thrilled, Elizabeth had taken it for granted that she would be Rhys's date. When Rhys arrived, he had with him a beautiful blond Italian princess. Elizabeth felt so outraged and betrayed that at midnight she left the party and went to bed with a bearded drunken Russian painter named Vassilov.
The entire, brief affair was a disaster. Elizabeth was so nervous and Vassilov was so drunk that it seemed to Elizabeth that there was no beginning, middle or end. The foreplay consisted of Vassilov pulling down his pants and flopping onto the bed. At that point Elizabeth was tempted to flee but she was determined to punish Rhys for his perfidy. She got undressed and crawled into bed. A moment later, with no warning, Vassilov was entering her. It was a strange sensation. It was not unpleasant, but neither did the earth shake. She felt Vassilov's body give a quick shudder, and a moment later he was snoring. Elizabeth lay there filled with self-disgust. It was hard to believe that all the songs and books and poems were about this. She thought of Rhys, and she wanted to weep. Quietly, Elizabeth put on her clothes and went home. When the painter telephoned her the next morning, Elizabeth had the housekeeper tell him that she was not in. The following day Elizabeth returned to school
She flew back in the company jet with her father and Rhys. The plane, which had been built to carry a hundred passengers, had been converted into a luxury ship. It had two large, beautifully docorated bedrooms in the rear, with full bathrooms, a comfortable office, a sitting room amidship, with paintings, and an elaborately equipped galley up front. Elizabeth thought of it as her father's magic carpet.
The two men talked business most of the time. When Rhys was free, he and Elizabeth played a game of chess. She played him to a draw, and when Rhys said, "I'm impressed," Elizabeth blushed with pleasure.
The last few months of school went by swiftly. It was time to begin thinking about her future. Elizabeth thought of Rhys's question, Do you know what you want to do with your life? She was not sure yet But because of old Samuel, Elizabeth had become fascinated by the family business, and knew that she would like to become a part of it. She was not sure what she could do. Perhaps she could start by helping her father. She remembered all the tales of the wonderful hostess her mother had become, how invaluable she had been to Sam. She would try to take her mother's place.
It would be a start.