Crimson

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About The Book

Elinor, a legendary novelist, is on her deathbed and must decide to whom she will leave her fortune. Which, if any, of her three granddaughters will inherit? Beautiful Annabel, Miranda, the brilliant businesswoman, or Clare, the film producer’s wife with a social conscience?

Excerpt

Chapter • 1

Monday, 5 July 1965

Within the Château de Saracen, cream blinds had been lowered in the main bedroom, but the glare of the July sun reflected from the Mediterranean Sea below could still be felt by the gaunt, white-clad nurse as she rustled from the bathroom with a small tray. She had a sallow face; beneath her sunken eyes were dark, liverish pouches.

As the church clock struck the noon hour, the nurse checked her watch; with an angular, careful walk on legs as thin as breadsticks, she approached the bed. The magnificent eight-foot-wide four-poster had once been the property of a Spanish princess; the high canopy was surmounted by ostrich feathers made of beaten silver; the hangings were stiff with cream brocade; and the interior of the curtains was heavily embroidered in gold, with a design of lilies. This ornate silver pile only escaped vulgarity because the other furniture in the room was simple and sparse.

They’ll probably be squabbling over that bed by tomorrow, thought the nurse, although it’s beginning to look as if the old girl might last another few days. So far, her three granddaughters had only been anxious and concerned about her, but once they knew that she was going, then the fun would start! Confusion always built up as the end approached. The crosscurrents of emotion and the momentary paralysis of shock were followed by the whispered anxieties and accusations; then came the little plots; and after that, the squabbles and the mighty, roaring rows.

Yes, thought the nurse, when it came to money, blood was thinner than water. Her experience had been that every family was a seething caldron of violent feelings: beneath the surface of the stew simmered expectations and demands, disappointment and suspicion, evasion of responsibility, greed and fear. And a deathbed was frequently the setting in which this stew of potential violence came to an explosive boil.

An unusual amount of money, such as this old girl clearly had, was especially tempting—and therefore especially destructive in its volatile ability to draw bad or weak family characteristics to the surface.

The nurse carefully placed her tray on the bedside table and picked up the syringe. As always, she wondered what people might be tempted to do for a fortune. Anything, provided they weren’t discovered, she decided as she flicked the syringe to expel air, preparatory to injecting the medicine into the thin arm of the feeble figure that lay in the bed.

The nurse spoke a little English but could not follow these foreigners when they talked among themselves. She didn’t need to, however; she knew with certainty what had drawn them here: they had sniffed money and followed the scent of the sous here to her part of France. Now that they were here, she knew they would return. For once they have heard it, the siren call of the south of France will always beckon visitors back to the timeless, sensuous landscape; back to the sun, to the sharp, exhilarating intensity of the light; to the sea and the pine-scented air; to the delicious food, the delicate, seductive wine.

Luckily, the foreign tourists of July and August were usually seen only in the well-publicized resorts and rarely found the tiny, quiet villages along that sun-drenched coastal strip known as the Côte d’Azur. Saracen was exactly such a place: built on a hilltop that plunged three hundred feet to the sea on the southern side, the medieval, tan-roofed village was dominated by this eleventh-century stone chateau, firmly perched on its truncated summit.

The nurse picked up her tray and returned it to the bathroom. She lingered at the window, looking out at the spectacular view. On both sides of Saracen, cedar- and pine-covered mountains descended directly to the deep aquamarine sea. As she leaned out, the nurse could also see behind the village, to the north, the perpetually green forest of the hinterland, which still provided shelter for wild boar, rabbits, and birds.

Down below the castle, the stone arches and narrow roads shimmered in the heat; leaves drooped from plane trees and dogs panted beneath them. Windows were shuttered against the burning glare of the midday sun, which sapped all energy from the day and everyone in it. Not a single villager would be visible until four o’clock. The voluptuous summer heat of the Riviera was enjoyable only if you did not need to work in it, so by tradition, nobody did.

The nurse yawned, and wished that she, too, could take a siesta. She knew that during this long, somnolent afternoon, most inhabitants of Saracen would stay indoors in shuttered shade to doze, to make love, or simply to enjoy their temporary, midday withdrawal from real life. It was a tempting prospect. Then, when the church clock chimed four, the villagers would open their shutters, stretch their arms, call greetings to one another from their black, curlicued wrought-iron balconies, and generally behave as if, like Sleeping Beauty, they had just awakened from a slumber that had lasted one hundred years.

The nurse yawned again. Unfortunately, she could not sleep now. She had to sit with the old woman; that was what she was paid to do. She walked toward the still figure in the ornate bed.

Abruptly the nurse stopped, startled, as her patient stirred slightly, then moaned.

* * *

Lying in her silver bed, Elinor O’Dare surged in and out of consciousness, suspended in a sea of incoherence.

For what seemed a long time, a black void of fear and pain had been Elinor’s only reality. Disoriented, she no longer knew in which direction the sky lay. She now felt sick and giddy, as if she were seasick, as if she were being tossed around by a monstrous wave. Elinor sensed that should she move, the steel band around her head would tighten like a tourniquet, increasing the ruthless pain.

Long ago, during the First World War, when Elinor had nursed dying men, she had at first been terrified by the noise of their pain, by the ululating groans and sharp screams that rose from their blood-soaked stretchers and their sweat-drenched beds. Even now she could recall the sweet, putrid smell of death; she also remembered the fear that had blanketed those wards, and now felt it herself, as pain wrapped her body in a formless black haze.

Was she dying? The thought was light as an autumn leaf, floating in her mind. Vaguely Elinor reasoned that if that were so, then the pain would cease and nothing else really mattered. Gradually, however, the waves of pain seemed to lessen, to lose their anger. She sensed a coming calm. Dare she hope that the pain was receding, or would that tempt the dark gods to increase it? No, there was no longer any doubt. The pain was slowly but definitely withdrawing from her body.

Eventually Elinor knew the almost forgotten luxury of no pain. Little by little her body relaxed, but still she dared not move, for fear of again inviting those searing stabs of agony. Elinor, who felt as if she had been holding her breath for hours, tentatively tried to take a deep breath.

Immediately a thousand needles jabbed her ribs. Her instinct was to scream, but she was unable to make even a sound. Something hard and smooth was clamped over her face, she realized with a shock, and her head was constricted by a contraption she could not see.

Though Elinor did not yet try to move, she could listen and she could smell. Concentrating, she could make out the faint, steady lapping of the sea against the rocks below her window; intuitively she sensed the sun’s warmth and smelled the Provençal scent of summer.

Suddenly she knew where she was!

She was in her own bed at Saracen, on a warm summer’s day. She could smell the soft breeze that blew off the hinterland, wafting rosemary, thyme, and the hot-baked-earth smell of the mountains.

Lying in her bed, Elinor decided that she must have had a nightmare, one of those terrible visions with the lingering power to convince, even after she had awakened. Better open her eyes now and ring for breakfast, she thought. Her bowl of milky coffee, her croissants and fruit, with the morning papers and mail would put her world in order again.

At first her eyelids seemed too heavy to lift; but slowly and with great effort, Elinor opened them a little, gradually registering the soft golden glow of filtered sunlight.

Yes. Everything was as usual. Before her, above the fireplace, hung a large, elaborately framed picture, which had been painted eight years ago, in 1957. In the life-size portrait, three girls dressed in white ball gowns sat on a misty blue brocade sofa in a shadowy drawing room. You did not have to be told that these girls were sisters: they shared a happy complicity, and although their coloring differed, they all had the same small, neat nose and large, slanting aquamarine eyes.

From the left, eighteen-year-old Clare, dark and tiny, leaned forward with a serious expression, offering a rose to tawny-haired Annabel, unquestionably the family beauty. Miranda (sixteen, skinny, still at school) perched like a bird on the back of the sofa; her face was pale and she hadn’t yet dyed her beige hair that odd marmalade color. She appeared slightly withdrawn but as charming as the other two, and as heedlessly ready to fly into life.

Only Annabel could be called a beauty, for Clare’s expression was too anxious and Miranda’s features were a little too sharp. All three, however, reflected the charisma of breeding and privilege. More significant in Elinor’s eyes, all three reminded her of her dear Billy.

The portrait always comforted Elinor. She remembered satisfying moments when the girls were small and she had taken a day off work and was about to take them out to tea or on a shopping trip: all three children would be clean and neat—socks still pulled up, hair ribbons tied—and almost quivering with eager anticipation.

Such moments of true happiness had been rare in Elinor’s life and they had never come when expected but blossomed quickly, at surprising moments. She had long ago decided that you couldn’t plan happiness, but you could plan achievement; and she had planned well, for she had succeeded beyond all reasonable expectations. In spite of all the early setbacks, the treachery, disappointments, and sheer drudgery, her success had been considerable: her twenty-two novels had been published in some forty countries; her fan mail arrived weekly by the sackful; and she received from everyone the respect that was her due. The legendary Elinor O’Dare was famous, successful, and very, very rich.

The legendary Elinor winced abruptly. The burning pain had started again, and it was within her body. Lying inert in the heat of her shaded bedroom, she realized that she could not move her limbs. There seemed to be no strength in her arms or legs: she willed her arms to lift, and they did not do so. She was paralyzed. She was not dreaming. She could not move!

She tried to speak, then to scream—but she couldn’t. Nor could she open her mouth. Her head felt woolly and muddled. The thought slowly registered—she must have had a stroke. No! It couldn’t be! She didn’t want it! She hadn’t yet finished living!

The effort of her anguished thinking exhausted her. Her eyelids fluttered shut, and black oblivion slowly drew over her. She willed her mind to go blank, yet somewhere outside her mental enclosure, she heard a sound. It was the well-remembered rustle of a nurse’s starched apron. She smelled the hospital smell of ether and the sour whiff of medicine.

“Am I dying?” Elinor whispered in French, finally willing her frozen mouth to move awkwardly.

“No. Do not upset yourself.” The nurse’s voice was calm, flat, and disinterested. Elinor knew she was lying. Her first reaction was one of indignation. She was used to being in command of her life, used to writing the plot herself—as she did those of her best-selling novels. But now she was rendered impotent by her helplessness—at the mercy of this mean-voiced nurse. An invisible, inexorable pen was scribbling “The End” before Elinor had finished her story—and this time there would be no happy ending.

For years Elinor had successfully avoided thinking about death. Like many strong-minded and successful people, she had not wanted to face the fact that, one day, she would die. She had not bothered to make a will, for that would mean having to make unpleasant decisions, decisions dealing with her own mortality. So she had put it off, resisting her lawyer’s gentle, persistent urging, preferring to ignore the subject, to think of herself only as enduring, invincible.

But today, lying in this shuttered room, she knew that the invincible had met the inevitable. She could only hope that she might have some time to get things in order. And she had better make her decisions quickly—or she might lose the chance to do so.

Elinor felt the uncomfortable contraption being tugged from her face. She felt too tired to move, to think, or to complain; she felt helpless and at the mercy of this impersonal stranger. Obviously, death was going to be a humiliating business, and she knew that helplessness was only the start.

Hearing the sharp, efficient moves of the nurse around her bed, Elinor fleetingly remembered daydreams from many years ago—from 1917, after she had left the small family farm near Excelsior, Minnesota, to train as an auxiliary nursing aide. She was only seventeen, still idealistic and romantic enough to envision herself as a calm, reassuring angel of mercy. World War I had inspired many young women to volunteer for auxiliary service of some kind; for most, it was a first step away from home. For most, it was also an abrupt end to innocence.

Elinor remembered her own reaction when she first arrived at the casualty clearing station in northern France to which she had been posted. She had expected the quiet orderly calm of the wards at her training hospital, not that shocking, awful noise in Ward C: the animal-like whimpers, sobs, sharp shrieks of agony, men crying in loose-mouthed delirium, while a phonograph played a Bing Boys’ tune to comfort those who knew they were about to die.

Now, almost half a century later, realizing what little time remained to her, Elinor’s patience vanished as instantaneously as had her innocence. Lying there, trapped in her bed, she found to her surprise, however, that it wasn’t the physical act of dying that she minded, or leaving what she had fought so hard to achieve. But the girls still needed her; they needed her strength, her advice, her emotional and moral support: despite the fact that two of them were married women and the third had already established a thriving business, Elinor was convinced that the girls could not yet survive without her. Her fortune, of course, would ensure their comfort and their social prestige, but who would be there to advise and protect them?

Elinor had been able to give her granddaughters what she had not had, and what she had been unable to give her only son, Edward: a life virtually free from care; a life in which there was the time and opportunity to look for happiness and, should they find it, simply to enjoy it; a life untroubled by the financial anxiety with which Elinor had lived for the first forty-five years of her life. It was an anxiety that had faded only when—thanks to her darling Billy—she had been able to grasp success and to savor its rewards.

At the thought of Billy, Elinor’s eyelids slowly lifted. In the dim light, she could just make out the small group of silver-framed photographs on her bedside table. Once again Elinor gazed into the smiling, confident eyes of the fair-haired young man she had loved so much. There he stood, flying goggles pushed back on his head, hands thrust in the bottom pockets of a battered tunic; his plane, a primitive machine made of canvas and struts, was behind him.

Billy O’Dare had been one of the few men to survive Ward C. His navigator had pulled him, unconscious, from his shot-down plane before it burst into flames. Billy had suffered a concussion, a slight cut on his head, and a bullet through his left foot that fractured the calcaneum.

Nearly fifty years later, Elinor still happily remembered the evening she fell in love with Billy O’Dare. The ward was relatively quiet when, shortly after midnight, she heard choking cries from bed 17. Grabbing the lantern, she hurried to find out what was wrong. Gently she shook the young man awake—he’d had a bad dream, that was all. Flight Commander O’Dare continued to sob, however, now clinging to Elinor’s hand. His face was partly covered by a turbanlike bandage, but her lantern shone into his eyes, reducing the pupils to pinpoints of black against irises of an unusual, dazzling shade of aquamarine. Elinor thought she had never seen anything so beautiful.

“Sorry to make such an ass of myself,” he mumbled.

“Don’t worry. Plenty of patients have nightmares,” Elinor comforted, trying to ease her hand away. She could smell, against the harsh wool of his blanket and the antiseptic whiff of bandages, the pungent male perfume of his body. He was no longer sobbing now, and she knew she should move away. Still, she could not stop staring into his eyes.

Patient 17 raised Elinor’s hand to his lips and she felt the tickle of his blond mustache against her thumb. For a moment, she thought he was going to kiss her hand, but instead, he turned it over and pressed her palm to his mouth. As Elinor felt the caress of his warm breath, Billy O’Dare gently licked her hand. She felt his moist tongue run slowly over her flesh and knew again that she should move away; her feet, however, seemed glued to the floorboards. She felt a blush rise from her breast and held her breath as he continued to stroke her hand with his warm, catlike tongue. Her trancelike state was broken only when another patient suddenly screamed.

By morning, Nurse Elinor Dove knew patient 17’s medical notes by heart. She also knew that Flight Commander William Montmorency O’Dare of the British Royal Air Force was twenty-five years old.

By some odd form of osmosis, the entire ward seemed to know immediately that Nurse Dove had tumbled in love with O’Dare. Beneath Elinor’s nunlike white headdress, her grape-green eyes glistened, and her cheeks were even pinker than usual. There was a lively spring in her step, and Sister had to admonish her for singing to herself.

On a visit to Ward C, Billy’s former navigator, Joe Grant, immediately spotted the romance. He told Billy he was a lucky dog, that Nurse Dove was special, different from the rest. When Billy repeated this observation to Elinor, she sniffed, “That’s what you men say to all us girls. What’s so different about me?

Billy looked at her thoughtfully, then said, “The girls at home are pale imitations of life compared to you. You have such vitality, such get-up-and-go! You have energy. It’s positively infectious!” He hesitated. “It is so American, it seems. I’ve seen these qualities in your soldiers as well; it’s something you don’t see in the Frenchies or Tommies. Whatever it is, you really are very special.”

Looking up from his pillow, Billy O’Dare hunched his right shoulder and slightly bent his bandaged head toward it as he smiled gently at Nurse Dove. From that moment on, she was forever in his control. Long after they were married, when Elinor knew fully the true cost of love, the slow grin that so clearly showed Billy’s impudent Irish charm—that complex combination of innocence and artfulness—would always wipe away her anger in an instant.

All these years after their meeting, Elinor recalled that irresistible grin; it was how she liked to remember Billy. In fact, it had become the only way she allowed herself to remember Billy—as the smiling, dashing young war hero who became her romantic bridegroom. Any subsequent unpleasant memories had been hidden in some dusty corner of her mind.

It was a pity that color photography hadn’t been invented then, she thought as she stared at the silver-framed, sepia photograph. All three sisters had inherited Billy’s aquamarine eyes, although only Miranda had inherited the beguiling grin. From Elinor they had inherited …

Elinor was suddenly reminded again that she hadn’t made a will. Their inheritance: yes, there was that to deal with. She closed her eyes, then, with an effort of will, opened them again. Slowly the room settled into focus.

The nurse leaned over her patient. “Can you open your mouth, madame? … A little more …” From a spouted cup, she dribbled a few drops of water into Elinor’s mouth; then she carefully rubbed ointment over the dry lips.

Painfully, Elinor whispered, “Where … are … my granddaughters?” She couldn’t move the right side of her face, so she spoke slowly and awkwardly, slurring her words as if tipsy. She could move her right fingers and toes, but she could not feel those on her left side.

Feeling panic start to rise, Elinor remembered that when she was very young and woke at night, she used to clutch her rosary to keep the devil at bay; now she groped for something similarly comforting to reassure her. More urgently she croaked, “Where are my granddaughters?

“I believe the ladies are on the terrace. I will call them.”

The nurse went to the window and pulled back the shutters. Yes, there they were, typically heedless of the afternoon sun. She called down.

From her bed, Elinor could hear excited voices, then the sound of metal chairs scraping against earthenware tiles. Tremulously she smiled, struggling to adjust her eyes to the sudden infusion of light.

A few minutes later, her bedroom door was flung open. Elinor first saw Clare’s animated, pale face, framed by long, straight dark hair.

“Darling, we’ve been so worried.” Clare’s voice was high and soft. She rushed to the bedside, knelt down and kissed her grandmother’s face, then the thin, blue-veined hands.

“Don’t overexcite her,” warned the nurse.

“My turn,” said Annabel, whose long, honey-colored hair was wet and tangled after swimming. For the past seven years, Annabel’s lovely face had gazed, wide-eyed, from every Avanti cosmetics advertisement around the world. When Elinor looked at her, she thought of white Persian kittens, feather beds and pale pink peonies: Annabel was soft, voluptuous, and feminine. Gently Annabel stroked her grandmother’s long, fair hair, now white at the roots, as it spread, fanlike, upon the pillow. She kissed the sunken cheeks and whispered, “Oh, Gran, we thought we’d lost you.”

Both sisters were close to tears as they gazed lovingly at their grandmother. Only Clare had even the slightest memory of their parents (killed in 1941 in a German bombing raid on London), and Elinor had always been the center of their world. They couldn’t imagine life without her. She had always seemed a combination of Isadora Duncan and Elinor Glyn—a bold, dramatic, and immortal figure.

“Where’s Miranda?” Elinor whispered.

“She had to return to London for the day—a business meeting,” Clare said softly. “We’ve all been here for the last two weeks. Annabel flew from New York as soon as we heard you were ill, but it took me a bit longer to get organized in Los Angeles. Miranda’s flying back tonight, by helicopter.”

“And where is Buzz?” Buzz was Elinor’s lifelong friend, now her secretary.

“Gone to Nice to get your medicine. After that, she’s calling at the airport, to see if Annabel’s luggage has turned up. Buzz never gives up hope!”

“We don’t want to overexcite Madame before the doctor sees her.” The nurse firmly held open the bedroom door. “You must go now, and I will call him.”

Annabel turned rebelliously toward the nurse, clearly prepared to ignore the edict.

Clare, however, immediately became the anxious and responsible elder sister. “Don’t be difficult, Frog,” she coaxed, using the childhood nickname that referred to Annabel’s large and sensuous mouth. “We’ll be back as soon as they let us.”

Clare gently pushed her sister out of the bedroom. Elinor turned imploring eyes toward the nurse. Silently they said, Please get a move on. I have so much to do. Elinor’s indomitable spirit was reasserting itself.

* * *

Clare, wearing a white bikini, lay on a beach mattress by the pool. She was small and skinny, but managed to look slim and fragile; she had a fey, elusive charm: you felt that she might slip between your fingers, like clear water from a mountain stream.

Lying on the next beach mattress, Annabel wore a claret-colored silk dressing gown that belonged to her husband. She always carried this item and a set of spare underwear in her hand luggage, for the rest of her baggage seemed invariably to travel on without her. This trip had proved no exception.

When the poolside telephone rang, Annabel grabbed the ivory receiver. “Maybe it’s about my luggage. If it’s gone on a trip to eternity, the airway will have to pay for all those new clothes.” She looked at the buttons on the telephone, which also served as an intercom, and frowned. “I’ll never get the hang of this thing.” She pressed a button. The line went dead. “Hell, I’m hopeless with machinery.” Annabel noticed that Clare looked anxious. “Sorry, Clare. Are you expecting a call?”

“Not really. Well, perhaps … I thought that …” Clare pushed dark strands of hair from her forehead. She suddenly burst into tears, covering her face with her hands.

Annabel scrambled from her mattress and ran to her sister, embracing her, pulling her close. “What’s up, darling? I knew something was wrong! Otherwise you wouldn’t have lugged Josh and his nanny all the way from California. Tell me. Why hasn’t he telephoned?”

Gradually Clare’s sobbing subsided. In a tone filled with angry indignation, unlike her normal soft voice, she told Annabel of the row. Clare had gone to the beach for the day, accompanied by Josh and his nanny. She returned early because of period cramps, and in her bedroom, she found a thin, tanned woman lying naked beside her husband. A bitter scene ensued. Clare stormed to her dressing room and started to pack. She heard his car spray gravel outside her window as it took off, too fast. Kneeling by her suitcase, Clare wept until another car arrived and Josh and his nanny clattered, laughing, into the house. At that moment, Annabel had telephoned from New York.

“Then you told me about Gran’s stroke,” snuffled Clare.

“Poor darling,” Annabel murmured, stroking Clare’s long, dark hair.

“He’s so clever at sidetracking. He makes me look like an overemotional idiot, when all the time he’s in the wrong.” With the back of her hand, Clare wiped tears away. She had always told herself that despite his casual promiscuity, her husband loved her in a special way, that he would never abandon their real love or jeopardize their son’s happiness. She told herself he was only asserting his male prowess with those other women, and he wouldn’t ever take one of them seriously. But then, that day, Clare had suddenly found that she could bear no more humiliation. So she had left him.

In the late-afternoon Provençal sunshine, Annabel silently hugged Clare and waited.

Eventually Clare continued, “I didn’t want the usual reconciliation scene, the usual flowers, the usual promises—and then the usual pain next time. Suddenly I simply didn’t care what happened to him.” She hugged her sister. “Oh Annabel, you won’t tell anyone, will you?”

“Have I ever told your secrets? But if you’ve really walked out for good, everyone will have to know sometime. Are you sure you’re going to …”

“Get a divorce? Yes. Absolutely. I don’t want Josh growing up to be like his father.”

“Well, don’t let Gran know, at least not yet. You know it’ll upset her. In fact, don’t tell anyone until you’re sure you’re sure.”

As Annabel comforted her sister, a maid approached. Speaking in French, she said, “The pool telephone malfunctions. New York awaits Miss Annabel.”

“I’ll take it in my bedroom,” Annabel said, jumping up with almost childish enthusiasm. She ran upstairs to her pale pink apartment, which overlooked the cobbled entrance courtyard and the church beyond it.

“Darling? At last! What’s your news?” Annabel could hear background sounds from the New York TV station for which her husband was a news anchorman. He was one of eleven reporters, only three of whom appeared as on-air newscasters.

“Local or national, angel? It’s eleven in the morning and sticky hot in New York. Yesterday Martin Luther King called for an end to the Vietnam War, but it looks as if Johnson will order more troops in. My lead story for this evening? Kennedy’s original view of Vietnam as a quick in-and-out operation might end in world war.” Annabel could imagine his teasing smile. “I hope your news is less alarming.”

Annabel told her husband about Elinor’s return to consciousness.

“That’s wonderful, angel. When are you coming back?”

“I don’t know. When Gran’s better. Does it matter?”

Her husband hesitated. “Sidney wants to talk to us.”

“Why?” Sidney was their accountant, and the sound of his name instantly set off alarm bells.

“I’ve decided to go after a better job.”

Annabel could hear the lack of self-confidence in her husband’s voice. She said, “But you love your—”

“It’s a little earlier than I planned to make my move, but that’s not so terrible. We’re sinking deeper into debt each day, and we have to find some way to shore up our finances.”

Annabel said miserably, “Oh darling, I’m so sorry. I was the one who insisted on the new duplex. It never crossed my mind that Avanti might not renew my contract.” She gave a shaky laugh. “I know I’m twenty-five, but that’s not old. Not in the normal world. Only for a model.”

“Avanti still might renew your contract. We don’t know.”

“I wish they’d make their damned minds up,” Annabel said. “I could kick myself for buying that apartment! I can’t think why I was so extravagant.”

“You bought it to give me the right background. You said, ‘A good picture needs a good frame,’” he reminded her. “You said in order to get into the Mike Wallace league, I have to look as if I am already in it.”

“Absolutely. And you will be.” Annabel cheered up. Her husband had the same quick, hard intelligence as Mike Wallace: he could be just as probing and provoking when interviewing. He could also produce the sort of insistent question that turned a news interview into a psychodrama. And he had the voice.

“Darling,” she went on, “you’re one of the best newsmen on television. And remember, you’re only twenty-nine years old. Mike Wallace was thirty-eight before he got his break on Night Beat. Plus I love you.”

“And I love you. In the meantime, angel, don’t take all the blame for the apartment. Remember, New York is a town about showing you can make it, making it, and then showing you’ve made it. Who knows, the apartment may help land my new job.”

Annabel laughed. “Well, if you don’t get your job and I don’t get mine, we’ll just have to sell the place and rent, like the rest of New York. It really doesn’t matter where we live. We’ll still have each other.”

* * *

Strapped into the noisy helicopter, Miranda tucked an unruly strand of marmalade-colored hair behind her intercom headset as she looked out at the sullen, gray English Channel below. “We left London at two-thirty, so we’ll get to Saracen by seven—in good time for dinner.” Miranda kept her voice as low as possible, her tone steady and deliberate; she spoke that way because she found that it commanded attention. She pressed her face against the tough plastic bubble that enveloped them. “I do so wish that Gran would let me learn to fly. Couldn’t you persuade her?”

Miranda then remembered that this might not be necessary. It was so hard to reconcile herself to the reality of her grandmother’s illness. She bit her lip and willed the tears away.

Sitting next to her, Adam Grant shook his head. He was tall, dark, and brown-eyed, with firm-hewn features and a cynical air of assurance. Miranda thought he looked like one of those almost perfect men drawn in magazine advertisements for cashmere sweaters, or that he might have fallen from the pages of one of Gran’s romantic novels.

Adam’s father, Joe Grant, had been Elinor’s longtime legal adviser and close friend. After his death, five years before, Elinor’s business affairs had gradually been passed to Adam, who also worked for the family legal firm of Swithin, Timmins and Grant.

Adam had asked Miranda for a lift in the Bell because this was one of the rare occasions when all three sisters would be at Saracen. Having them together like this would provide him with the opportunity to discuss, gently but firmly and as unemotionally as possible, what would happen should Elinor die intestate. Despite her dual U.S. and British citizenship, Elinor was resident in France, and the French tax authorities considered theirs to be the controlling law for her entire estate. Once again Adam regretted that he had been unable to persuade Elinor to make a will, because there were always complications when anyone died intestate. Perhaps he should have been more insistent, but Adam valued their long-standing relationship, and he had not wanted to upset Elinor, who clearly hated the thought of discussing her own death.

It was Elinor who had asked Adam to guide Miranda’s steps into the business world, and in the three years since Miranda had opened her first small makeup shop, her business had spread—albeit sparsely—all over Britain. Last year, Adam, her unofficial adviser, had become a part-time director. He had just restructured the balance sheet for their next leap ahead.

“You know I wouldn’t persuade Elinor to do anything she didn’t want to do,” Adam said gently. He found it interesting that this twenty-four-year-old red-haired baby tycoon who wanted to fly should still submit to Elinor’s wishes. Generally Miranda made her own rules and ignored what other people thought of her.

Looking at Miranda, Adam once again found himself thinking that if all women were basically beautiful, their bodies would probably resemble Miranda’s. Her slim figure wasn’t voluptuous, but it was perfect: her breasts were small, high, and rounded; her waist was neat, her stomach flat. And when she walked, her long, slim legs moved in a graceful stalk. In addition, Miranda was always appropriately dressed for the occasion: that gray silk suit, simple but feminine, had been perfect for this morning’s monthly office meeting.

Miranda shrugged her shoulders and decided to change the subject. She switched off the intercom to the pilot so that he couldn’t hear what she was saying. “Adam, I’m not entirely happy about Ned Sinclair.”

“I think he’s settled down very fast.” Adam had poached their new financial director from a rival cosmetics manufacturer.

“He asked me one or two unnecessary questions about our future plans. It bothers me, although perhaps I’ve become oversensitive since Mary Quant started her beauty business.”

“Quant doesn’t own a chain of retail shops.” Adam’s hand flipped his hair back as if to brush away an irritation. His dark hair was still cut as it had been when he was at school; parted on the right, it flopped over his left temple and gave his face an endearing, seemingly innocent charm.

“She’s my direct competition because we think along similar lines. I bet she’ll be international before I am. I shouldn’t be surprised to hear that Ned has approached her.”

Once again it occurred to Adam that Miranda had inherited many of Elinor’s characteristics: her intuition and the ability to act on it, her stubborn determination, and her guts.

He smiled. “I’ll run a check on Ned. You could be international—if only you would agree to franchise.”

“I won’t franchise because I don’t want to lose control of my business! However tight the contracts are, you lose control once you do. Others might not want to work as hard as we do, and they may not have such high standards of presentation. So please forget it.”

“If you won’t franchise, then you’ll have to put up with being short of money,” Adam said firmly, looking at her from large-lidded dark eyes. “What would you do for a lot of money, Miranda?”

“What wouldn’t I do for a lot of money!” Miranda laughed.

“I wonder,” Adam said thoughtfully.

“Oh, you’re so resolute, so determined.” Miranda smiled. “I can’t think why we seem to be on an endless financial tightrope.”

“Because you want to expand faster than we can afford.” Adam spoke laconically. He shrugged his shoulders. “But who knows what lies ahead …”

How dare he! “I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking that if Gran dies …” Miranda burst into tears.

Adam was astonished, partly because she had correctly guessed his thoughts. Also he had never before seen Miranda cry. She rarely showed her emotions.

He pulled a Paisley silk handkerchief from his navy blazer and silently handed it to her.

“Damn, I’ve lost a contact lens,” Miranda gulped. “Can you see it on my skirt? Or has it fallen to the floor?”

“Keep still. I can see it on your lap.”

As Adam leaned over her, Miranda inhaled his faint musky scent. Adam moved in a miasma of sexuality, which he seemed not to notice although it was as definite as warm breath. She thought he smelled a bit like a well-groomed horse. Close up, his odor reminded her of expensive leather. This subtle erotic scent contradicted Adam’s careful lawyer’s demeanor, his understated Savile Row suits and shirts, his horn-rimmed glasses.

Miranda knew that Adam had a devastating effect on women. She had first observed it on a shared family holiday in St.-Tropez, twelve years ago. Miranda, only twelve at the time, had noticed that even the grumpy old French housekeeper happily danced attendance on twenty-three-year-old Adam.

Miranda knew why Adam had never made a serious pass at her or her sisters. To have done so would have been unprofessional and might have adversely affected his job. Additionally, all three sisters, while acknowledging his attractiveness, had grown up thinking of Adam as a young uncle. He in turn had always regarded them as children, much to their indignation at the time.

Now, as Adam carefully placed the contact lens in the palm of Miranda’s hand, she reminded herself that he was not her uncle. Then she pushed this thought to the back of her head and told herself jokingly to keep her hands off the staff. Turning away from Adam to reinsert her lens, Miranda also reminded herself that at the moment, she hadn’t time for a lover. In this respect she was unusual; the Pill was now readily available and every liberated girl was on it, whether or not her mother knew. Increasingly a woman was expected to jump into bed after the first date—something that didn’t suit Miranda, who felt only anxiety when in bed with a man whom she didn’t know well and therefore didn’t trust. At this point in her young life, there had been only one man who made her feel secure.

Adam said, “Even if it distresses you, there’s something I feel we should discuss before reaching Saracen; it’s your grandmother’s will. She hasn’t yet made one, but we have discussed the matter.”

Clearly worried, Adam was silent for a moment, then continued in a low voice: “For me, this is a difficult dilemma: Do I stick to my standards of professional discretion, or do I break my client’s confidence in order to do what’s best for her and those she loves? Does the end justify the means? Would Elinor—my client, my friend and benefactor—allow it? That’s what I can’t decide. Because I know that Elinor would want whatever is most advantageous to all her granddaughters.”

“I’d advise you not to break your client’s confidence,” Miranda said, “but be sensible and tell me what the hell this is about.”

“Without breaking Elinor’s confidence, I can tell you that although she intends to leave the bulk of her fortune to you three sisters, various methods of controlling the money have been considered.”

“What do you mean, Adam, controlling the money?” Whenever it came to finances, Miranda was instinctively suspicious.

“She’s anxious that the money not be … frittered away. There are various possible ways of protecting it. She doesn’t like the French legal requirement to share the property equally among all descendants. As you know, Elinor lost touch with her family many years ago, and she doesn’t want her brother’s children—if he ever had any—to suddenly appear, claim money, make trouble. But as Elinor is a resident of France, this will happen unless she makes … alternative arrangements.”

“What sort of arrangements?” Miranda demanded.

“She’s had a few rather … dramatic ideas, as you would expect. She doesn’t like the British system, where the eldest inherits everything on the understanding that the inheritor cares for the rest of the family.”

“I should think not!” Miranda was the youngest of the three sisters. For her, primogeniture would be disastrous. “Gran saw what happened to her own husband!”

Billy’s grandmother, a considerable heiress, had left all her money to her elder son, an impulsive weakling, who lost nearly all of it in an Edwardian stock exchange swindle. When he died, Billy’s elder brother inherited what was left of the family estate; Billy inherited nothing.

“Elinor seems to think the Greek system is the most sensible,” Adam said.

“What’s that?”

“A wealthy Greek father often leaves all the family money to the child most capable of looking after it, on the understanding that the inheritor looks after the immediate family.”

“The most financially capable sister is me,” Miranda stated.

“In financial matters, certainly. But Clare has always been very conscientious and responsible; she was like a mother hen toward you and Annabel when you were little girls.”

Miranda sat up sharply. “All my life I’ve had Clare shoved down my throat!” Clare was the eldest, the responsible sister, whose duty it was to look after the little ones. She could be relied upon because she was steady and practical. Conscientious Clare would never tell a lie—not even a white one—and could be relied upon always to be fair, as Clare herself never stopped reminding people.

It was Clare’s much vaunted sense of justice that made her feel responsible for the whole damn world, particularly every underprivileged person in it, Miranda knew. If Clare grabbed the purse strings, then they would not be opened for Miranda, who was not Clare’s idea of a needy person. Miranda would be pushed back to the position of baby sister.

“Unfortunately, Elinor thinks you … Would you say you were steadier than Clare?” Adam asked.

“You mean Gran thinks I’m too … rash?”

“I wouldn’t say that, exactly,” Adam said reflectively, “although perhaps Elinor does think you take too many risks. She sees you as the daring young girl on the flying trapeze of business. But of course, Elinor doesn’t understand that in business, it’s necessary to take risks. I see your adventurous streak as a business asset.”

“It’s not fair!” Miranda retorted bitterly, remembering how often she had said that as a child.

Eventually she asked, “What will happen if Gran dies without making a will?”

“There may be a nasty legal mess that might take years to disentangle,” Adam said. “And that’s something I don’t intend to allow. As soon as Elinor is well enough to do so, I will insist she make her decisions.” He paused, then added: “There is an alternative to the Greek system that would safeguard the money and yet be fair.”

“What’s that?” Miranda quickly looked at Adam.

“It would mean that you would be certain to get your fair share.”

What is it, Adam?

“I wondered whether Elinor would respond favorably to the idea of setting up a family trust,” Adam mused. “What do you think? If you think not, then I don’t want to distract her by the idea.” Adam knew that, as the shrewdest and most forceful of the sisters, Miranda would be a formidable opponent should she object to his suggestion.

“What would be the point of setting up a trust?” Miranda asked cautiously.

“Making a trust is a bit like making a will, except that you put it into practice before you die,” Adam explained. “If Elinor were to set up a trust, naming her granddaughters and their descendants as beneficiaries, then the money would be protected as Elinor wishes, because there’s no risk that one heir can squander it all. The trustees wouldn’t allow it: their job is to guard the trust, not slavishly obey the whims of the beneficiaries.”

Miranda ran her hand through wild red hair. “You mean Clare couldn’t sit on the money and refuse to share it, and she couldn’t give it away to charity? And Annabel couldn’t buy a couple of yachts?”

“Exactly. The advantage of a trust is that there would be a permanent cautionary control over the capital,” Adam said. “I suspect that you would have nothing to lose, Miranda, were a trust to be established—and you might possibly have a great deal to gain. Trustees do not like frivolous expenditure; they might, shall we say, guard your sisters from themselves.”

Miranda said firmly, “Then I vote for a trust.”

“And what do you think Annabel will want?” Adam asked. “Perhaps it would be best if you discussed this with her, rather than me.” Such a matter was always difficult to bring up with a close relative at such a time: that was why he had discussed it with Miranda before their arrival at Saracen. Adam added apologetically, “You know better than I do how to handle Annabel so that such a discussion won’t upset her. I’m afraid she’d turn on me, perhaps think I’m being cold-blooded.”

“I don’t see why she should,” Miranda said. “But I think you should talk to her because you can answer her questions, if she has any; I know nothing about the legal ramifications. Don’t worry, Adam. Of course, Annabel is ridiculously sentimental, but after all, you have nothing to gain—you’re only trying to prevent trouble for us. Basically, I’m confident that Annabel won’t want Clare holding the purse strings, back in a position to boss us around. Stress that to Annabel and she won’t be sentimental.”

* * *

The apricot flush of the evening sky paled beyond the balustrade of the terrace, and the quivering reflections of the sea faded on Elinor’s bedroom ceiling. She had been drifting in and out of sleep; the churning noise of the helicopter rotors finally awakened her. After the noise ceased, Elinor heard shrieked greetings and laughter from the far terrace. Only a few moments later, her bedroom door burst open.

“Darling Gran, this is wonderful!” Miranda ran to the bedside and kissed her grandmother. “Welcome back!”

* * *

Outside on the terrace, while Clare put two-year-old Josh to bed, Adam sipped champagne and chatted with Annabel. As he had done to Miranda, he mentioned the possibility of a trust as an alternative to Clare’s being left in charge of the family fortune.

Annabel reacted with surprise, followed by irritation. “I had quite enough of being pushed about by Clare when we were children. Tell me more about this trust idea.”

* * *

After dinner, Adam suggested to Clare that they take a walk. He wanted to be sure there would be no time-wasting opposition or bickering among the sisters when Elinor had so little strength left.

“Do we really have to talk about this now, Adam?” Clare was in no mood for financial discussion as they sauntered downhill, through winding narrow streets lined by bougainvillea and dimly lit by old-fashioned lampposts.

“I hoped that I could rely on you to be sensible, not sentimental,” Adam said firmly. He added, “I’m only trying to arrange what Elinor would want and what is best for all of you. That’s my duty as Elinor’s adviser.”

Clare thought how pompous Adam sounded. Why did Gran always have to have some man around to tell her what to do? When Daddy Billy was alive, his word had always been final. Then Gran’s lawyer—Joe Grant—had become the great male authority figure in their lives, and now his son, Adam, had inherited the mantle of wisdom.

“I don’t see what’s wrong with just sharing it out,” Clare said. “In case you haven’t noticed, old friend, we aren’t babies any longer. I’m a grown-up married woman.”

Hesitantly Adam said, “Miranda and Annabel like the concept of a trust.”

Clare spoke tartly. “Of course Annabel will agree—without thinking—to whatever Miranda suggests, because that’s what she’s always done. But I don’t see why a trust is necessary. In fact, it seems an unnecessarily complicated idea.”

She was as stubborn as her grandmother, Adam thought regretfully as he tried a new tack.

Clare listened, then shook her head lightly and said, “It won’t work anymore with me, Adam. I’ve heard it too often.”

“Heard what?”

“The adult equivalent of ‘Daddy knows best.’ ”

About The Author

Shirley Conran has worked as a design consultant, journalist, and editor for The Daily Mail and The Observer. Her first book, Superwoman, sold more than a million copies worldwide and was followed by eleven bestsellers. She currently lives in London.

Product Details

  • Publisher: Pocket Books (July 24, 2012)
  • Length: 400 pages
  • ISBN13: 9781451699180

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