In desperation Claire asked Dane to marry her.
Her adoptive grandfather had left Claire his entire estate on the condition that she marry one of his grandsons. But he must have forgotten that the free-spirited Dane Visconti, though long banished from the family’s realm, still qualified. And Claire had always idolized and trusted Dane. With his worldly reputation, Claire conceded Dane was not the marrying kind, so when he agreed she promised to make no demands on him. But Dane made no promise in return – and insisted on a few conditions of his own.
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‘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.