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Bittersweet Passion

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«Bittersweet Passion» - Линн Грэхем

Claire has been taken advantage of as a caregiver for her grandfather, who adopted her as a young girl. When her grandfather passes on, he leaves his fortune in her hands.But there is one condition—she has to marry one of her cousins to receive the inheritance. Nothing has been left for an old couple who served her grandfather for a long time, and Claire wishes to give them compensation in some way, so she makes a bold move—she proposes to her notorious playboy cousin Dane. How will he react?
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Bittersweet Passion Lynne Graham

is one of Mills & Boon’s most popular and bestselling novelists. Her writing was an instant success with readers worldwide. Since her first book, Bittersweet Passion, was published in 1987, she has gone from strength to strength and now has over ninety titles, which have sold more than thirty-five million copies, to her name.

In this special collection, we offer readers a chance to revisit favourite books or enjoy that rare treasure—a book by a favourite writer—they may have missed. In every case, seduction and passion with a gorgeous, irresistible man are guaranteed!

LYNNE GRAHAM was born in Northern Ireland and has been a keen Mills & Boon® reader since her teens. She is very happily married, with an understanding husband who has learned to cook since she started to write! Her five children keep her on her toes. She has a very large dog, which knocks everything over, a very small terrier, which barks a lot, and two cats. When time allows, Lynne is a keen gardener.

Bittersweet Passion

Lynne Graham

Table of Contents

About the Author

Title Page














‘GOOD God!’ Steve whispered irreverently. ‘Dane’s actually come.’

A perceptible flutter of interest spread through the gathered mourners at Adam Fletcher’s graveside. Several pairs of eyes wearing expressions ranging from curiosity to outright disapproval watched the approach of the prodigal as he strode across the cemetery. The lugubrious vicar cleared his throat and glanced enquiringly at the slender girl by his side.

‘I think we’d better wait,’ she agreed quietly.

On her other side Carter Fletcher’s thin face set into angry lines. ‘How did he find out?’ he muttered.

Claire’s cheekbones washed with pink, since she had been the one to see that Dane was informed. As his tall, carelessly dressed figure drew level she lowered her eyes.

When Dane’s mother, Adam’s only daughter, had married not only a foreigner but a man who had made his fortune in casinos, nightclubs and what were euphemistically termed girlie magazines, Adam Fletcher had struck her name from the family Bible. Shortly after her death, however, he had chosen to acknowledge Dane’s existence by inviting him up to Ranbury Hall for the weekend. Not that Dane, by then having reached twenty-one, had shown himself properly grateful for such belated attention. Already rich beyond avarice, Dane had come out of curiosity alone, and unlike the rest of Adam’s family, he had never toadied.

‘Man that is born of woman …’ The sepulchral voice intoned.

Claire swallowed hard. Not a single soul present truly mourned her grandfather’s death. An eccentric, miserly and reclusive old man, he had been no more polite or pleasant to his neighbours than he had been to his own immediate family.

Claire’s father had been Adam’s youngest and least successful son. Her parents had led a somewhat gipsyish existence because her father had rarely stuck in one job for long. She had been four when they had adopted her, and her memory of the six years she had had with them was a warm cocoon to retire inside whenever she was low. Money had been in short supply but there had been love. Their sudden death in a car crash had cut unimaginably deep, and her life at Ranbury Hall afterwards had been achingly familiar. Before her adoption she had been in a variety of foster homes and institutions. There, too, there had often been coldness and disinterest, a sense of not belonging to anything or anybody, and that buried insecurity had been fanned to a flame from the moment she arrived at Ranbury to make her home with Adam Fletcher.

‘The law may say you’re my granddaughter but we both know you’re not,’ he had growled resentfully. ‘You were adopted. You’re no kin of mine but I can’t have it said I let you go into an institution. I expect you’ll be able to make yourself useful about the house. You’re not a pretty child, either. I dare say you’ll still be here when I’m doddering and needing a nurse.

In the chilly breeze gusting across the exposed graveyard, she shivered beneath her thin navy raincoat. Adam had been correct in his forecast. She was twenty-three now and, apart from a few years in a boarding school outside Leeds, she had been no further than Ranbury and its overgrown acres in the Yorkshire Dales. But a year ago, a year that was now etched into her soul as a timeless, agonising period of unhappiness, she could have gone to the man she loved, had not Adam’s illness made it impossible for her to leave.

In staying she had done what everyone estimated to be her duty, and four days ago Adam had passed away in his sleep. There was no longer any reason for her to remain at Ranbury. Max had waited patiently for over a year for her to join him in London. Soon she would have a new life, a new beginning with someone who wanted her for herself … someone who cared about her as a person with feelings and needs of her own. That had to be a first in Claire’s experience.

Her grandfather had found her an unwelcome responsibility until he saw how useful a quiet, hard-working girl could be around a large, understaffed house and what savings could be made through that same girl’s painstaking efforts to budget. And, of late, she’d been much cheaper than a private nurse. A nurse wouldn’t have stood Adam’s sharp, vindictive tongue, the barrage of constant, nagging complaints that had made Claire’s days unendurable. All the compassion in the world could prove insufficient when life became one long, unremitting toil ruled by the whims of a cold, tyrannical old man.

It’s over now, a little voice soothed inside her brain. Tiredly she lifted her auburn head again, ashamed of such unforgiving thoughts. After all, she was free now to make her own choices and her choice was quite naturally to be reunited with Max. Thankfully no one could prevent that now.

‘Ashes to ashes, dust to dust …’ Carter’s arm curved firmly to her waist and she stiffened in taut rejection of his familiarity.

Opposite, her gaze collided unexpectedly with Dane’s chillingly beautiful, bright blue eyes and the tinge of amusement in the faint tilt of his mouth. Reddening, she looked away again. At least she could absolve Dane of paying his respects only out of a desire to see what his grandfather had left him. Dane was much wealthier than ever the Fletchers had been and he hailed from a very different world.

The depth of his tan emphasised the amount of time he spent abroad and the tight-fitting black cords and designer-cut leather jerkin he sported were not, she imagined, the mark of disrespect Carter’s face so clearly said they were, but more likely to be a sign that Dane had flown back in a hurry and probably from the States to attend the funeral. Even so, she had never seen him in a suit. Raised in California, even though he now based the headquarters of the Visconti business interests in London, Dane was a great deal less hidebound and conventional than his cousins.

‘Miss Fletcher.’ The vicar was shaking her hand first because she alone of the assembled group had lived with the departed.

‘Claire.’ Dane’s hand engulfed hers firmly. ‘My condolences. Was it sudden?’

Her witch-hazel eyes widened behind her tortoiseshell spectacles. ‘No, he was ill for a long time,’ she murmured. ‘It was a release for him to die.’

‘You shouldn’t have said that,’ Carter sniped, pressing her back on to the gravel path. ‘It sounded disrespectful.’ Then, ‘Dane had no business coming here.’

‘I’m glad he came,’ she countered. ‘I always thought Grandfather had a soft spot for him, even though he’d never have admitted it.’

‘Nonsense, Claire.’ Carter made a minute adjustment to his tie as they headed towards the cars waiting beyond the wall. ‘Far be it from me to boast, but I was always the favourite.’

Lord, what a petty little man he was! Arriving too late to make the funeral arrangements, he had none the less managed to question each and every one of them. When Steve, her other cousin, ignored his parents’ car and climbed in behind Carter, she smiled relief. Still a student, Steve had done little but regale her with descriptions of his fiancée and apologise for his few visits of recent. But then, who could say Ranbury Hall was inviting? she reflected wryly. Her grandfather had not expended a penny on the rambling property during the past fifty years. The amount of comfort available there was marginal.

‘Look at the car Dane’s travelling in!’ Steve nearly broke his neck peering out at the long, opulent limousine with its tinted windows, which was parked at the end of the church lane. ‘My mother must be going green with envy!’

Carter delivered him a scornful glance. ‘Did Celia inform Dane of Adam’s death?’ he demanded, Celia being Carter’s aunt and Steve’s mother.

Claire chewed her lip uneasily. ‘No, that was me, Carter.’

He looked at her in astonishment ‘You?’ he parroted.

‘He had a right to be told,’ she stated levelly, though her cheeks were pale. ‘I contacted his secretary in London. She didn’t tell me where he was. Actually, at the time I didn’t think she paid much heed to my message. I had enough trouble just getting to speak to her.’

Steve laughed, understanding. ‘I doubt if Dane ever felt the need to name-drop grandfather’s existence.’

Carter was still staring at her, flushed by angry incredulity. ‘You should have discussed it with me first. Dane hasn’t been up here in years.’

‘Three years,’ Claire inserted. ‘And you know Grandfather told him not to come again. He was very rude to him on that last visit.’

‘No ruder than he ever was to anyone else.’ Carter let down his sanctimonious front to stab, ‘To attend his funeral now is the height of bad taste and, if Dane’s expecting to find any profit for himself out of the reading of the will, he’ll soon find his mistake.’

Her distaste threatened to choke her. Aside of the last couple of months when it had been clear that Adam Fletcher was on his deathbed, Carter had been a very infrequent visitor here. Once he had reached that realisation he had visited regularly, showing a calculation Claire had despised. It had not been lost on her, either, that her grandfather had belatedly reached the conclusion that Carter would make her an excellent husband. Stolid and careful in his ways, and equally penny-pinching, Carter had managed to impress Adam deeply.

She was glad when the car glided through the tall, rusty gates and came to a halt on the weedy gravel fronting the granite bareness of the Hall. Hard winters had scarred the paintwork, neglect had done the rest and on a prematurely dark, wintry afternoon, the Hall proffered a gloomy welcome.

Seeing Mr Coverdale’s stately old Rover already parked, she hastened from the car. ‘I’ll see that some tea is served first. It’s bitterly cold.’

In her opinion the will would contain no surprises. The estate would be divided equally between all of them. For what reason other than that belief would Carter have asked her to marry him a mere week ago? As she passed the hall mirror her own colourless and drab exterior mocked her.

She had not grown up pretty. Those teenage fantasies had died years ago. She was short-sighted, undersized and, at any gathering, likely to be the one offering the refreshments around. Carter was too grasping to have proposed without the conviction that she would bring with her a sizeable dowry.

Money! A bitter smile crossed her small face. She glanced at threadbare curtains and worn carpets, furniture that had never been anything other than cheap and functional even in its day. There was no heating. The hot water supply was unreliable and the kitchens prehistoric. Precious little enjoyment her grandfather had taken from his money!

A year ago Claire had been naïvely happy. Max Walker, the trainee estate manager at Ranbury, had asked her to marry him. Her shyness and reserve briefly forgotten, she had flown straight to her grandfather to tell him. Adam had sacked Max and, before she could pack her bags and follow, Adam had not only informed her that he had cancer but that if she disobeyed him he would dispense with the elderly servants still in his employ. The threat of unhousing Maisie and Sam Morley, who lived in a tumbledown cottage on the edge of the estate had horrified her. Nor had it been necessary.

Duty was a yoke that Claire had never shirked and she had done everything possible to ease her grandfather’s last months alive. She had also sought to persuade him to make some small provision in his will for the old couple who, as housekeeper and gardener, had worked for him throughout his life. But since he had considered them the Social Service’s responsibility to house and keep, she had small hope that his attitude would have softened.

Hanging her coat, she hurried into the kitchen. Maisie took one look at her tense, wan face and abandoning the tea trolley enveloped Claire in a warm, reassuring hug. ‘It’s done now and everything will come all right,’ the old lady promised kindly. ‘And don’t you let anyone bully you into thinking otherwise.’

Claire blinked back tears. She had been dry-eyed all day. But Maisie’s rough affection touched her to the heart, for the old housekeeper had to be concerned about her own future. She was in her seventies, with an ailing and not very mobile husband, and accommodation that was tied to her job. She had much more to worry about.

‘Yes, everything’s going to be fine.’ There was a calm quality to Claire’s voice as she pulled herself firmly together. Adam was bound to have left her enough money to ensure that the Morleys’ remaining years were comfortable ones. The family had always talked as if he was loaded. A pension, she planned absently, and that little house—such as it was—signed over to them. It might even be possible to have the cottage refurbished.

Some of her tension drained away as she thought daringly of her own plans. In the heat of a long ago summer’s day, Max had shyly confided that his dearest ambition was to have a farm of his own. Since neither of them had had any money, it had seemed just a dream. But now Claire wondered dizzily just how much a small piece of land and a modest house could cost. They’d be able to get married immediately instead of waiting—Max was still without a job. He wouldn’t need one if he had land of his own to work. Things might be tight but that was nothing she wasn’t used to … and they’d be together as two people in love ought to be together. Not subsisting on a diet of unsatisfactory letters to keep their relationship alive. Poor Max, he found letters such a labour. She still treasured each and every one of his missives, though they mainly catalogued his daily doings and his frustration with inactivity.

‘Claire!’ Carter snapped. ‘Mr Coverdale’s waiting.’

Her eyes gleamed with annoyance as Maisie guiltily returned to making the tea.

‘She’s only the housekeeper. I wish you’d remember that,’ Carter complained as she followed him. ‘You’re much too familiar with her.’

Prevented by the presence of others from an angry and unashamed rebuttal, she contented herself with the reflection that Carter’s snobbery scarcely mattered now. It would be a relief, not a hardship for Maisie to retire. Apart from Claire, none of the Fletchers had ever cherished the smallest warmth towards her. If there was anything the family respected apart from the great god Money, it was the dividing line between family and hired help. Claire had always straddled the borderline between. Oh, she was a Fletcher now when Carter considered her worthy of a marriage proposal, but for long years she had just been Adam’s unwanted ward who helped around the house. Carter must think she had an incredibly short memory!

Her grandfather’s solicitor, a small man in his late fifties, came forward to greet her, apologising for his unavoidable absence from the funeral. Steve and his parents, James and Celia were already standing close to the miserable fire flickering in the large drawing-room grate. Carter’s older sister, Sandra, who had kept house for him since the death of their parents, was already seated. Dane strolled in last, and she remembered abruptly that he hated tea and sped past him to head for the kitchen again.

Although Adam had raved in his moments of religious fervour about Dane’s notorious reputation and jet-set life-style, Claire could dimly recall occasions during her unhappy childhood here when Dane had been carelessly kind to her. Indeed, when she had been sixteen she had developed a quite hopeless crush on Dane who, to her adolescent eyes, represented every woman’s fantasy. She was rather glad he hadn’t noticed it. Not that she had flaunted her feelings. Her wayward emotions had made her more tongue-tied and self-conscious than ever and in any case, she had nurtured no fantasies on wish-fulfilment.

Dane was one of the Beautiful People, fěted in the gossip columns and the subject of many a risqué kiss’n’tell story by discarded exes, recountals in Sunday newspapers that Claire had once been avidly glued to. Even then the mere concept of Dane even registering that she was female had amused her.

‘Where are you bolting off to now?’ His lazy enquiry was accompanied by a restraining hand on her sleeve. ‘Go and sit down. You look exhausted.’

And could have done without being told so. She stole a rueful glance up at his strikingly handsome features, the silvery-blond hair luxuriantly curving over his collar in such effective contrast to the winged ebony brows and spiky lashes he had inherited from his Italian father. It was an arrogant face, his strength of character underwritten by his superb bone structure. The long, narrow-bridged perfection of his nose lent decided hauteur to his features, and cynicism and sensuality combined in the hard, chiselled line of his mouth. He was quite breathtakingly good-looking. Little wonder that he went through women like a fox in a hen-yard, she allowed grudgingly.

‘I’ll be back in a moment.’ Circumspectly she dragged her eyes from him. What did he see? Poor, bullied, plain spinster cousin Claire? He would be surprised how much purpose seethed beneath her composed exterior. Even more surprised perhaps to learn there was a man in her life.

‘Coffee for Dane, Maisie!’ she called into the kitchen.

‘Claire!’ Carter erupted afresh, somewhere in her wake.

She hastened back, rather flushed and harassed, to take a seat in one of the hard, overstuffed armchairs. Mr Coverdale was unfurling papers from his briefcase. ‘Firstly—’ he cast a rather wary glance round the room ‘—there are people present who do not benefit from Mr Fletcher’s last will and testament.’

‘We’re all family,’ Carter said loftily. ‘Please continue.’

The older man sighed. ‘Mr Fletcher had for some time intended that Miss Claire Fletcher be the sole beneficiary of his estate, but a year ago he made alterations to his will. I did seek to reason with him about the terms he included, but to no avail, and I feel it my duty to inform you, Miss Fletcher, that …’

‘The sole beneficiary? The sole beneficiary?’ Celia was repeating furiously.

An expression of rich enjoyment crossed Dane’s faintly bored features and he lowered himself down gracefully into a chair near the window, his air one of strong anticipation.

‘That it is very unlikely that you could combat those terms in court,’ Mr Coverdale completed.

‘She’s getting everything?’ Celia ranted, still not over the first statement, her plump face a blotchy pink.

Carter curled his lip over his aunt’s annoyance. ‘And who more deserving, Celia? Claire was a very dutiful granddaughter. I’m sure no one could argue that anyone else was more entitled. If you listen, however, you will realise that Grandfather didn’t make the bequest without qualification.’

Under the loud backlash of family comment, Claire had paled. A year ago the will had been changed. Her romance with Max had shaken her grandfather up more than he had admitted. She wasn’t disapppointed. In fact, she was grateful not to have received the entire estate. She could hardly feel it was her due. As long as there was still enough for the Morleys, she told herself squarely, and mentally crossed her fingers.

‘Unfortunately Mr Fletcher’s affairs are in quite a tangle and I don’t yet have adequate valuations on the investments my client made out in South Africa. He mortgaged this house to do so. However, I can tell you that—’ the solicitor advanced, affecting not to hear the gasps of surprise ‘—the money does rest in those investments and I imagine that the amount will be a considerable one. Now I shall read the will, if I may.’

Taken aback by the news that the Hall was mortgaged, Claire resolutely attempted to avoid Carter’s meaningful smile in her direction. He seemed expectant, excited almost, as though the contents of the will were already known to him.

‘… being of sound mind do bequeath my estate in its entirety to my granddaughter, Claire, on the condition that she marries one of my grandsons, such choice being an obvious one … He did insist on writing this himself,’ Mr Coverdale murmured uncomfortably, as if the unearthly silence that had fallen and Claire’s shocked stillness had penetrated even his bland good humour. ‘You see, he believed it would take a man to run his business affairs, Miss Fletcher, but Mr Carter Fletcher assured me that you were only holding off from a formal announcement out of respect for you grandfather’s demise. Or am I premature in mentioning the matter?’

Shattered by Carter’s unforgivable machinations to line his own pockets, Claire was incapable of speech.

‘Congratulations.’ Sandra kissed her cheek with newly discovered cousinly affection. ‘It’s by far the fairest arrangement.’

Claire’s teeth sank into the soft underside of her lower lip and she tasted blood. ‘It’s iniquitious … humiliating …’ Her stifled voice wasted away.

‘Claire, you’re overwrought.’ A heavy hand came down to pat her shoulder.

Instinctively she flinched from Carter’s proprietorial hold, too disgusted even to look at him. Well, his visits to their grandfather had certainly paid good dividends! ‘What happens if I don’t marry Carter?’ she asked.

The solicitor looked distinctly uneasy. ‘The will doesn’t specify which of your male cousins,’ he added as if he believed this might be of some help to her.

‘I’m engaged!’ Steve burst out abruptly.

Dane gave up the ghost and laughed with unholy amusement.

Celia rounded on him like a tigress. ‘It’s all very well for you to laugh,’ she snapped. ‘The money means nothing to you!’

Dane dealt her a sardonic smile. ‘Was that your Roller or someone else’s I saw at the cemetery? Good God, none of you are broke except Claire,’ he breathed contemptuously.

‘I shall continue now,’ Mr Coverdale cut in hurriedly before hostilities escalated afresh. ‘There is a small bequest and … an alternative. To my grandson Dane, I bequeath my Bible.’ A pindropping silence fell. ‘To James and Celia, nothing because …’ He hesitated fatally.

‘Nothing?’ Celia screeched incredulously. ‘Because of what?’

The solicitor breathed in like a man girding his loins. ‘Because during my lifetime I on several occasions advanced certain monies to my son James, which he did not repay although I did remind him of the debts …’

‘Come, James.’ Celia arose majestically. ‘Steven! We’re not staying here any longer.’

‘And in the event of my granddaughter Claire pursuing that relationship which I did not approve of and no marriage taking place with my grandson, my estate, is to be sold and the proceeds given to the Temperance Society.’

‘Who shall I serve first?’ Maisie asked as she noisily wheeled in the tea trolley.

Carter cleared his throat. ‘What relationship, Claire?’

She got up quickly. ‘I believe that’s my business, Carter. Please excuse me for a moment, Mr Coverdale,’ she murmured and followed her aunt and uncle’s sweeping departure to the hall.

Steve clasped her hand, his boyish face wreathed with embarrassment. ‘I’m sorry, I didn’t mean …’ he began awkwardly.

‘I didn’t take offence.’ She forced a smile because she liked him. Clearly Celia’s behaviour had mortified him. How often had Adam embarrassed her in front of others? Once too often today, she thought, going down the steps to speak to her aunt and uncle.

‘Oh, it’s not your fault,’ Celia was saying petulantly to her hen-pecked husband. ‘I hated him. He was a miserable, cantankerous old goat and I don’t care if he was your father, James! I never had a polite word from him.’

‘Won’t you stay to dinner?’ Claire pressed unhappily.

Celia spun on her diminutive niece. ‘You have to be joking,’ she said cuttingly. ‘I wish you joy with Carter. He’s an Adam in the making!’

Her uncle squeezed her hand apologetically. ‘She doesn’t mean it, you know. Carter’s a fine young man.’

She watched them depart and then found Mr Coverdale already hovering in the hall behind her. ‘I had finished, Miss Fletcher. If you have any queries, please don’t hesitate to call.’

‘He left nothing for the staff here?’ In her anxiety she double-checked.

‘Unfortunately not. I’m afraid my client was not of a benevolent disposition,’ he said heavily.

What an understatement! Still in shock, Claire glanced into the drawing-room where Carter and Sandra were in close confab. Dane was nowhere to be seen. She suspected him of taking refuge in the library. Striving to calm herself down, Claire went into the kitchen. But what on earth was she going to do?

Her grandfather had removed her from school at sixteen. She had no training for any career. She hadn’t even got to sit her O-levels. Maisie was sitting tiredly by the kitchen table. Claire looked away again, a terrible bitterness consuming her as she tasted the full portent of her grandfather’s selfishness. She did not have a penny of her own to give the Morleys. Would ceding them that pitiful cottage for the remainder of their lives have been such a sacrifice? How mightily self-satisfied he must have been after penning that will to explode upon all of them but Carter.

She dragged out the vegetable basket and piled potatoes into the sink. It was after five. She might as well start dinner early.

‘Here. I got it from my car.’ A liqueur glass landed on the edge of the draining board. Dane gave her a mocking smile. ‘You need a drink more than you need a cup of half-cold tea. Are you all set to celebrate your nuptials with Carter?’

His amusement struck her as cruel. Yes, in a sense Celia had spoken truly. Dane didn’t have a clue what it felt like to be a charity case or to be humiliated as she had been by that will. Her grandfather had literally proffered a bribe to Carter to marry her.


He lounged with indolent grace back against the old wooden cupboards. ‘Then you’re going to pursue the unsuitable relationship?’ he guessed. ‘You surprise me. I never thought you had the guts to rebel.’

Her cheeks flamed. ‘You’re very frank.’

He shrugged indifferently. ‘I came to tell you I’d give you a lift down to London if you want one, and I’ll fix you up with somewhere to stay,’ he offered casually. ‘Knowing Adam, you haven’t even got the price of your next meal.’

She lifted the potato peeler and resisted an urge to dig it into his lean, muscular ribcage. If only it were that easy. Her hopes had been dashed to smithereens. She had foolishly dared to dream and by doing so had tripled her own disappointment. When was she going to learn? The thought train verged too close to self-pity and she killed it stone dead. There would be no farm for Max, no home that she could finally call her own. Thanks to Adam, Max was on the dole queue, sacked without a reference because he had dared to offer her marriage and that hadn’t fitted in with Adam’s plans.

How could she go to Max now, penniless, with only a few shabby clothes to her name? What prospect did she even have of supporting herself? She had no qualifications, no marketable talent outside the domestic sphere. She would be a millstone round Max’s neck.

Yet for so long she had dreamt of making Max’s dream come true and sharing that dream with him. Rigid with self-discipline, totally unaware of Dane’s sharply assessing scrutiny, she noticed Maisie quietly tidying up in the pantry, and her selfish absorption in her own predicament left a nasty taste in her mouth. At least she had health and youth on her side. The Morleys had only the expectancy that a lifetime of service would lead to an easier old age. And now even that was to be denied them

Carter’s peevish voice sprung her from her depressing introspection. ‘What are you drinking, Claire?’

Dane expelled his breath. ‘Oh, put the lid on it, Carter. You were always a dead bore. You don’t need to labour the point the way you do,’ he drawled.

Ignoring Carter, Claire glanced hopefully at Dane. ‘You’ll stay to dinner?’ she urged. ‘It won’t be anything special, of course, but …’

‘Shall I send my chauffeur out for some steak?’ Dane interposed calmly. ‘We could all do with a decent meal. I’ll go and tell him.’

Carter’s mouth worked convulsively as Dane breezed past him. ‘Who does he think he is?’ he finally managed.

‘He was being practical,’ she countered with unwitting defensiveness. ‘He knows what the housekeeping budget is like here and I assume he’s hungry.’

‘I wasn’t talking about Dane’s appetite!’ he parried shortly.

Claire continued doggedly to peel potatoes. ‘I didn’t suppose you were, Carter, but I really don’t have anything else to discuss with you,’ she stressed coldly.

Impervious to hints, he murmured with an air of self-restraint. ‘I’ll speak to you later.’

Claire managed to smile at Maisie. ‘I think it’s time you went home. You must be exhausted. I can manage fine.’

Alone then, she pictured a life sentence of Carter and abandoned the picture with a shiver. The assiduous toadying with which he had paved his every visit here to Adam had made her stomach heave. Now resentment hurtled fiercely through her in addition. The will doesn’t specify which of your cousins. The solicitor’s deadpan aside produced a humourless smile on her mouth. As if she was ready to barter herself to anyone for money! Unless it wasn’t a real marriage … the insidious thought crept in. In an illuminating flash she saw the possibility of solving all her problems in one fell swoop.

Maisie and Sam would be secure. She could be with Max without being a burden. No, it was a fantastic notion, born out of sheer despair, and there was only one possible candidate. Dane. He was Adam’s grandson, too. But Dane would think she was crazy. The idea of even approaching him on such a mission plunged her sharply back to cold reality.

She flushed guiltily when he reappeared to dump a carrier bag on the table. ‘I like beef Stroganoff,’ he informed her, oblivious to her blushes as he departed again.

Dane always spoke with the assurance and habit of command. Even in his normal garb of jeans, the aura of power and unspoken expectations clung to him. But then from birth Dane had had everything he wanted. He was bound to be pretty selfish and spoilt by the fashion in which women pursued him. Her weary mouth down-curved. Who the heck did he think was going to toil over a hot stove to make his wretched meal? But why should he think? Used as he was to servants, it would not occur to Dane that he was creating hassle she could well do without.

The atmosphere round the table in the icy cold dining-room was tense. Dane ate with unblemished appetite. Carter, who looked upon anything remotely different in the food line as suspicious, poked his food round his plate, and Sandra was too busy trying to flirt with Dane to notice what she was eating.

‘Is it OK if I stay tonight?’ Dane enquired lazily. ‘I’m jet-lagged and I don’t feel like another journey.’

Claire nodded politely. ‘That’s fine.’

Another two beds to make up, unless he expected his chauffeur to sleep in the car! She trailed worn, thin sheets from the airing cupboard and trekked into the bedrooms. The rooms were so cold her breath was fogging in the air, and she went downstairs again to fill hot-water bottles that would take the chill off the rarely used beds. Then she lit a fire in Dane’s room. He was sure to be finding it colder than anyone else.

By the time she had done all that and embarked on the dishes, she was practically asleep standing up. When Carter came in and demanded to know where Maisie was, she nearly screamed at him. Slowly she counted to ten. ‘It’s late, Carter. I sent her home hours ago.’

‘Leave those, then. It’s time we talked.’

Setting the last dish to drain, she dried her hands. ‘Sorry, I’m going up to bed. It’s been a very long day.’

His mouth narrowed in exasperation. ‘For everybody, Claire,’ he rebuked condescendingly.

A fuse blew, Claire planted her hands on her hips. ‘Has it been? Were any of the rest of you involved in making beds, cleaning this wretched house or making meals? Has one of you so much as lifted a finger? Sandra and you arrived two days ago, and neither of you have done a single thing,’ she condemned. ‘Who do you think has been doing it? The fairies? The past week has been one long, relentless slog for me. I haven’t been sitting around sipping tea. I’ve been serving it. I wouldn’t marry you either, Carter, not if you went down on your bended knees and begged. I’m sorry your little plan has failed at the last ditch,’ she lied in a shaking voice. ‘Goodnight, Carter.’

She swept past his turkey-red face and mounted the stairs, hearing his shocked murmurings to his sister in the hall below. Well, she wasn’t ashamed of herself! Whatever the future held for her, she wasn’t going to be used by anyone again!

She recalled the social worker who had ferried her up here thirteen years ago. ‘You’re a very lucky little girl,’ that lady had said innocently. ‘You still have a family and you’re going to live in a lovely big house. I expect you’ll have lots of fun there.’ And Claire could still remember the coldness of the non-existent welcome mat, the lady’s uneasy, almost guilty departure.

On the surface, the passage of time had changed very little. However, she was a grown woman now, not a frightened, dependent child and if she didn’t fight, no one else would do the fighting for her, Automatically she readied herself for bed.

‘You’ll be taken care of. I’ve seen to that,’ Adam had pronounced piously weeks ago.

Taken care of? By what right had he chosen to reach out from beyond the grave to demand that she marry a man who didn’t even have the saving grace of respecting her? And she owed Carter nothing. Neither he nor his sister had even tried to ease the burden of nursing their grandfather. But oh, yes! they all had time to attend the funeral and none of them had the smallest interest in what happened to the Morleys. For the first time she appreciated that Maisie and Sam’s future was dependent on what she herself chose to do and the lunatic idea that had occurred to her earlier suddenly didn’t seem quite so fantastic any more.

Her hands shook with suppressed rage as she buttoned her robe. After all these years was she to let the Morleys go from this house penniless? Things might have been different had she been allowed to train as a secretary … or something. She could have helped them financially then. Instead, she had spent the past seven years being nothing more than a glorified servant. God knows, there weren’t even jobs out there for qualified people—what hope did she have? And Max? Being fired hadn’t helped his prospects. He’d done nothing to deserve such treatment. Neither had Maisie and Sam. Adam owed all of them more than that. If she married Dane, the terms of the will would be fulfilled. It would cost him nothing, yet it would mean so much to everyone else concerned.

What harm would it do just to mention the idea to him? You’re a coward. She glowered at herself myopically in the mirror. You could at least try. So what if he laughs? When are you likely to see him again?

Buoyed by a courage that was three-quarters desperation, she left her room and crept down the corridor to knock on Dane’s door. His quiet answer encouraged her in.

To her dismay he was already in bed, lying back against the pillows like a rather gorgeous sleek and tawny tiger, replete, the covers dipping dangerously low on his flat stomach. A curling mass of dark hair covered a triangular V on his muscular chest and then tapered down to an intriguing silky furrow below his waist. Framed against the white sheets, his golden skin was all the more noticeable. The interior of her mouth ran dry and she hastily averted her eyes.

He smiled. ‘I was just about to put out the light. Tell me, did everyone else qualify for a fire?’

Claire blushed and glanced at the fire she had kindled earlier. ‘No, but since you’re just back from abroad I thought you might feel the cold more. I need to speak to you … could you put something on?’ she asked hesitantly.

He laughed. ‘Don’t be such a prude, Claire. I don’t have pyjamas, and I distinctly recall you spending half the night with me when you had toothache years ago. It didn’t bother you then.’

‘I was eleven.’ Her breath was snarling up in her throat and she could feel her courage fleeing her second by second, so although she hadn’t planned it that way, she just hurled it at him.’ Dane … will you marry me?’


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