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Married to a Mistress(2)

By:Lynne Graham

Her late mother, Gwen, had once been Nancy’s companion—a paid employee but for all that Nancy had always talked of her as a friend. Her godmother, however, had thoroughly disliked the man her companion and friend had chosen to marry.

Weak, selfish, unreliable... Russ Kendall was, unfortunately, all of those things, but he was also the only parent Maxie had ever known and Maxie was loyal. Her father had brought her up alone, loving her to the best of his ability. That she had never been able to trust him to behave himself around a woman as wealthy as Nancy Leeward had just been a cross Maxie had had to bear.

Every time Russ Kendall had brought his daughter to Gilbourne to visit he had overstayed his welcome, striving to butter her godmother up with compliments before trying to borrow money from her, impervious to the chill of the older woman’s distaste. Maxie had always been filled with guilty relief when her father departed again. Only then had she been able to relax and enjoy herself.

‘I thought I heard a car but I must’ve been mistaken. I wish Maxie would come...I’m looking forward to seeing her again,’ a female voice said quite clearly.

Maxie twisted in surprise to survey the drawing-room door, only now registering that it was ajar. That had been Polly’s voice, soft and gentle, just like Polly herself.

‘That’s one thrill I could live without,’ a second female voice responded tartly. ‘Maxie, the living doll—’

‘She can’t help being beautiful, Darcy.’

Outside the door, Maxie had frozen, unnerved by the biting hostility she had heard in Darcy’s cuttingly well-bred voice. So Darcy still hadn’t managed to forgive her, and yet what had destroyed their friendship three years earlier had been in no way Maxie’s fault. Darcy had been jilted at the altar. Her bridegroom had waited until the eleventh hour to confess that he had fallen in love with one of her bridesmaids. That bridesmaid, entirely innocent of the smallest instant of flirtation with or indeed interest in the bridegroom, had unfortunately been Maxie.

‘Does that somehow excuse her for stealing someone else’s husband?’

‘I don’t think any of us get to choose who we fall in love with,’ Polly stressed with a surprising amount of emotion. ‘And Maxie must be devastated now that he’s gone back to his wife.’

‘If Maxie ever falls in love, it won’t be with an ancient old bloke like that,’ Darcy scorned. ‘She wouldn’t have looked twice at Leland Coulter if he hadn’t been loaded! Surely you haven’t forgotten what her father was like? Greed is in Maxie’s bloodstream. Don’t you remember the way Russ was always trying to touch poor Nancy for a loan?’

‘I remember how much his behaviour embarrassed and upset Maxie,’ Polly responded tautly, her dismay at the other woman’s attitude audible.

In the awful pool of silence that followed Maxie wrapped her arms round herself. She felt gutted, totally gutted. So nothing had changed. Darcy was stubborn and never admitted herself in the wrong. Maxie had, however, hoped that time would’ve lessened the other woman’s antagonism to the point where they could at least make peace.

‘She is stunningly beautiful. Who can really blame her for taking advantage of that?’ Darcy breathed in a grudging effort at placation. ‘But then what else has Maxie got? I never did think she had much in the way of brains—’

‘How can you say that, Darcy? Maxie is severely dyslexic,’ Polly reminded her companion reproachfully.

Maxie lost all her natural colour, cringing at even this whispered reference to her biggest secret.

The tense silence in the drawing-room lingered.

‘And in spite of that she’s so wonderfully famous now,’ Polly sighed.

‘Well, if your idea of fame is playing Goldilocks in shampoo commercials, I suppose she is,’ Darcy shot back crushingly.

Unfreezing, Maxie tiptoed back down the corridor and then walked with brisk, firm steps back again. She pushed wide the door with a light smile pasted to her unwittingly pale face.

‘Maxie!’ Polly carolled, and rose rather awkwardly to her feet.

Halfway towards her, Maxie stopped dead. Tiny dark-haired Polly was pregnant.

‘When did you get married?’ Maxie demanded with a grin.

Polly turned brick-red. ‘I didn’t...I mean, I’m not...’

Maxie was stunned. Polly had been raised by a fire-breathing puritanical father. The teenager Maxie recalled had been wonderfully kind and caring, but also extremely prim and proper as a result. Horribly aware that she had embarrassed Polly, she forced a laugh. ‘So what?’ she said lightly.

‘I’m afraid the event of a child without a husband is not something as easily shrugged off in Polly’s world as in yours.’ Darcy stood by the window, her boyishly short auburn hair catching fire from the light behind her, aggressive green eyes challenging on the point.

Maxie stiffened at the reminder that Darcy had a child of her own but she refused to rise to that bait. Poor Polly looked trained enough as it was. ‘Polly knows what I meant—’

‘Does she—?’ Darcy began.

‘I feel dizzy!’ Polly announced with startling abruptness.

Instantly Darcy stopped glaring at Maxie and both women anxiously converged on the tiny brunette. Maxie was the more efficient helper. Gently easing Polly down into the nearest armchair, she fetched a footstool because the smaller woman’s ankles looked painfully swollen. Then, noting the untouched tea trolley nearby, she poured Polly a cup of tea and urged her to eat a digestive biscuit.

‘Do you think you should see a doctor?’ Darcy asked ruefully. ‘I suppose I was lucky. I was never ill when I was expecting Zia.’

‘What do you think, Polly?’ Maxie prompted.

‘I’m fine...saw one yesterday,’ Polly muttered. ‘I’m just tired.

At that point, a middle-aged man in a dark suit was shown in with great ceremony by the housekeeper. Introducing himself as Edward Hartley, their godmother’s solicitor, he took a seat, politely turned down the offer of refreshment and briskly extracted a document from his briefcase.

‘Before I commence the reading of the will, I feel that I should warn you all beforehand that the respective monies will only be advanced if the strict conditions laid down by my late client are met—’

‘Put that in English,’ Darcy interrupted impatiently.

Mr Hartley removed his spectacles with a faint sigh. ‘I assume that you are all aware that Mrs Leeward enjoyed a very happy but tragically brief marriage when she was in her twenties, and that the premature death of her husband was a lifelong source of sorrow and regret to her.’

‘Yes,’ Polly confirmed warmly. ‘Our godmother often talked to us about Robbie.’

‘He died in a car crash six months after they married,’ Maxie continued ruefully. ‘As time went on he became pretty much a saint in her memory. She used to talk to us about marriage as if it was some kind of Holy Grail and a woman’s only hope of happiness.’

‘Before her death, Mrs Leeward made it her business to visit each one of you. After completing those visits, she altered her will,’ Edward Hartley informed them in a tone of wry regret. ‘I advised her that the conditions of inheritance she chose to include might be very difficult, if not impossible for any one of you to fulfil. However, Mrs Leeward was a lady who knew her own mind, and she had made her decision.’

Maxie was holding her breath, her bemused gaze skimming over the faces of her companions. Polly wore an expression of blank exhaustion but Darcy, never able to hide her feelings, now looked worried sick.

In the pin-dropping silence, the solicitor began to read the will. Nancy Leeward had left her entire and extremely substantial estate evenly divided between her three goddaughters on condition that each of them married within a year and remained married for a minimum of six months. Only then would they qualify to inherit a portion of the estate. In the event of any one of them failing to meet the terms of the will, that person’s share would revert to the Crown.

By the time the older man had finished speaking, Maxie was in shock. Every scrap of colour had drained from her face. She had hoped, she had prayed that she might be released from the burden of debt that had almost destroyed her life. And now she had learnt that, like everything else over the past twenty-two years, from the death of her mother when she was a toddler to her father’s compulsive gambling addiction, nothing was going to be that easy.

A jagged laugh broke from Darcy. ‘You’ve just got to be kidding,’ she said incredulously.

‘There’s no chance of me fulfilling those conditions,’ Polly confided chokily, glancing at her swollen stomach and looking away again with open embarrassment.

‘Nor I...’ Maxie admitted flatly, her attention resting on Polly and her heart sinking for her. She should have guessed there would be no supportive male in the picture. Trusting, sweet-natured Polly had obviously been seduced and dumped.

Darcy shot Maxie an exasperated look. ‘They’ll be queuing up for you, Maxie—

‘With my colourful reputation?’

Darcy flushed. ‘All any one of us requires is a man and a wedding ring. Personally speaking, I’ll only attract either by advertising and offering a share of the proceeds as a bribe!’