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It was a wet winter's day in London. Rain lashed at the windows of Mr Rothwell's office, obscuring the forms of bustling pedestrians on the streets. The office was spartan and cold, Mr Rothwell large, solid and humourless. In brusque tones he introduced Anna to a man by the name of Mr Alex Kent.
Stepping forward, Mr Kent expressed sympathy for her bereavement. His voice was deep, resonant and slightly accented — East European, Anna thought. He had a patrician, almost arrogant air about him that suggested education, breeding and money. However, Anna was so nervous and awed by the occasion she paid no attention to him. She was only interested in what Mr Rothwell had to say.
When the letter had come, asking her to make an appointment to attend the solicitors Rothwell and Rankin's office in London for the reading of her mother's will, she hadn't known what to expect — though, of course, she didn't know enough about lawyers and wills to make comparisons. Since then she had worked herself into a knot of anticipation and foreboding.
Mr Rothwell gestured to a leather-covered chair across the desk. "Please sit down, Miss Preston."
Dressed in maroon school tunic, blazer, maroon-and-gold striped tie and sturdy black lace-ups, Anna removed her felt hat and placed it on the desk in front of her. Sitting stiff-backed on the edge of her chair, her lips compressed into a thin line, she faced the elderly lawyer across the desk. A shiver of apprehension ran through her. Glancing down at the folder in front of him, as briefly as possible Mr Rothwell explained the terms of the will. Apart from a few of her mother's personal items there was nothing of value — no money, no property.
This came as no surprise to Anna, but what did surprise her was that her mother had placed her in the care of Lord Selwyn Manson. Lord Manson was Anna's maternal grandfather, a man she knew practically nothing about — and the little she did know did not endear him to her. Because her mother had always spoken of him in the past tense, she had believed him to be deceased.
Anna listened in utter silence and in an agony of tightly corked emotion, her fingers tightening on each other in her lap. Her nerves were stretched, teetering on a scream.
"This has come as something of a shock to me, Mr Roth-well. My mother sheltered me all my life, kept things from me. She often spoke of my father, who was an artist and was killed in the war before I was born, but she told me very little of her own background, only the unpleasant circumstances that forced her to leave home. I was not aware that I had any family alive at all, let alone a grandfather — or that he was a peer of the realm."
"Lord Manson has always been aware of your existence. I am in contact with your grandfather's solicitors — and I am grateful that Mr Kent, who is your grandfather's adviser and associate on several business matters, could take time off from his busy schedule to be present today."
Anna kept focused on Mr Rothwell, feeling the eyes of the formidable Mr Kent, seated on the sofa behind her, burning holes in her back. "Why did my grandfather not try to contact me?"
"Your mother forbade him to. However she stipulates in her will that on her demise, until you reach twenty-one, your guardianship must pass over to your grandfather."
A coldness closed on Anna's face. She shifted uneasily and wondered why pain always had to be concealed in hard reality. "I don't understand. Why would my mother do that? Why should he care about me?"
"You are his sole heir, Miss Preston, and when he dies — even after death duties — you will be an extremely wealthy woman."
At that moment the amount of her grandfather's money didn't interest Anna — the disruption the terms of her mother's will would bring to her life did. "Does he want to see me?" She felt depressed and there was a hollow feeling in the pit of her stomach.
"Eventually." 'May I ask when?" she asked evenly. Her tone betrayed nothing, neither shock, outrage or pain, which was deeply felt.
"When you have completed your education." 'I take my Higher Certificate examinations very soon. My teachers have been preparing me for university and I was hoping to sit the Oxford entrance exam. You see, I had set my sights on a career for which a university degree is essential. However, I do not have the means to go to university now, so I am considering doing a secretarial course instead. I must work to support myself, you understand."
"My dear Miss Preston, you can forget about work." 'Why? I have to work some time." 'There is absolutely no question of that. You must reconsider your future. When you have taken your exams, your grandfather has expressed a wish that you continue your education in Europe."
"And afterwards?" 'That you make Belhaven, which is in Buckinghamshire, your home."
Mr Rothwell went on to talk further about Belhaven and Lord Manson's plans for her future — coming-out, a Season. Anna gave only monosyllabic replies. She asked a brief question now and then, showing no sense of curiosity about Bel-haven or the man who was to be her guardian, and feeling nothing but abhorrence at his talk of a Season. They were interrupted when his secretary knocked and opened the door, beckoning to him that she would like a word. Murmuring an apology, Mr Rothwell excused himself and left the office.
Alex Kent, who had listened quietly and intently, now got up and came towards her. He stood looking down at her slim, informal figure. At seventeen years old there was still a trace of childishness about her; in fact, Anna Preston looked as aloof and virginal as a nun in a convent. She was calm, controlled, which, he thought, was her normal way of doing things, but beneath it all a kind of fierce energy seemed to burn.
When they had been introduced, she had looked at him uncertainly and taken his outstretched hand. Her grip had been surprisingly firm for her age, and when she spoke her voice was soft and cultured. His first reaction had been, "what a prim miss', and then, more soberly, "what a pretty — no — beautiful girl'. Her skin was pale, her features small and delicate, but it was the large violet eyes and upward slanting eyebrows that drew and arrested his gaze so that the rest was forgotten. Her hair was long, silken and black, drawn in a maroon ribbon at the back of her neck. Her expression was still and frozen, an expression he understood. It was the look of a girl who had never been happy — who was frightened to allow herself so frivolous an emotion in case it was taken away. He knew her mother had helped keep it there.
"Your grandfather and I have been close friends for many years," Alex said. "He realised the problems you would have to face today and asked me to come here to look after you. I have accepted that responsibility."
"May I ask why he didn't come himself?" 'He suffers from a severe form of arthritis that prevents him moving about. He lives quietly, rarely leaving the house. Aren't you interested to know more about Belhaven — about your grandfather or your future?"
"No, sir, not very," Anna replied, speaking politely and frankly and looking up at him from her fringe of dark lashes. As she did so she remembered the night when she had been six years old and she had walked in on her mother crying wretchedly for her long dead husband. In her anguished ravings and with half a bottle of gin inside her, her mother had told of the harsh, cruel treatment meted out to her by the very man Alex Kent spoke of.
Her mother, always careful never to show emotion or feeling, had never spoken of it again, but what Anna had seen and been told had affected her deeply. With all the anger and confusion of a child she had craved revenge for what her grandfather had done to her mother. And now that same man was arrogantly demanding control of her life.
"Any interest my grandfather shows in me now is seventeen years too late, Mr Kent. I have worked hard for my examinations in the hope that I can go on and further my education. Do you expect me to turn cartwheels over a house and a man I thought was dead — a man who was so unfeeling he turned his back on my mother for marrying the man of her choice?"
Alex Kent sat on one corner of the desk, gently swinging one elegantly shod foot, forcing her to look at him properly for the first time. Probably twenty-seven or eight, his skin was burned mahogany brown — suggesting an extended holiday in the south of France or somewhere similar where the rich and famous went — contrasting vividly with his silver-grey eyes. The planes of his face were angular, his gaze penetrating. His black hair, as black as her own, was brushed back, with the gleam and vitality of a panther's pelt. Anna noted the crisp way it curled in the nape of his neck, and the hard muscled width of his shoulders beneath his expensively tailored jacket. The firm set of his jaw confirmed her impression that he would stand no nonsense from anyone. He towered above her, making her at once guarded, vulnerable, and acutely uncomfortable as he considered her in lengthy silence.
"Not entirely," Alex replied at length in answer to her question. "When your father died your grandfather asked her to return home. She refused, allowing sentiment and not good sense to rule her emotions. If she was unhappy, she had no one to blame but herself. But what of you? Your mother was a secretary to an accountant in the city, living in a rented house in Highgate. You must have known she wasn't earning the kind of money to send you to Gilchrist. Did it ever occur to you to wonder where she found the money to finance your education at such an exclusive school, a school with high academic standards, admitting only the daughters of the very rich?"
Anna grew thoughtful. He was right, Gilchrist was expensive and exclusive, as befitted the daughters of people of class. She had puzzled on this, but, after a while, accepted it. It was easier that way. "No. But I suspect I am about to find out."
Alex nodded, his gaze hardening at her tone, which was offhand and with a hint of animosity. "Your grandfather. Despite their estrangement, your mother was not averse to accepting his money to finance your education — but she would accept nothing for herself. She sheltered you, kept things from you. You never questioned her, which tells me you are either stupid or afraid of reality." His eyes narrowed when her smooth façade broke. An objection sprang to her lips, which she checked, and her face became flushed, the blood running beneath her smooth skin in the painful way it does when one is young. "The latter, I think."
"If I am as stupid and nai¨ve as you obviously think, then I would do better to harden myself in my own way, with my own kind of people," Anna snapped.
Alex raised an eyebrow. Her remark stirred his anger, and when he spoke his tone was harsh and to the point. "Your own kind of people have always resided at Belhaven. Harden yourself, by all means, but do it in the right place and with the right people. Perhaps a year at finishing school will help you acquire charm and confidence and, since you are to move in exalted circles, will help you develop a feeling of being the equal of any man or woman — which, being the granddaughter and heir of one of England's wealthiest men, is important."
Anna blanched and for the space of half a minute she could not speak. "Forgive me. I really had no idea my grandfather was that rich. So, it is his intention to turn me into a facsimile of a well-bred, well-connected young woman."
"Which is precisely what you are," Alex stated, with a distinctly unpleasant edge to his voice. He smiled his rather austere smile, one corner of his mouth curling.
With a sinking heart, Anna wished he didn't make her feel like the gauche schoolgirl she was. It was irritating to be judged on appearances and found lacking.
"You are impertinent, Miss Preston," he went on reproachfully. "Gilchrist may apply great emphasis to the values of academic ability, but where manners are concerned it appears to be somewhat lacking."
Anger kindled in the depths of Anna's dark eyes. Tutored in rules of discipline and restraint, normally she would never dream of arguing with anyone, especially not with an elder. She was far too polite, far too dutiful, but this stranger had a way of getting under her skin and releasing something unpleasant in her. He also knew far too much about her and about her mother for her liking.
"I suppose I must seem impertinent to you," she admitted, meeting his gaze unflinchingly, her sense of depression growing worse. "With no family to speak of, with a mother who ignored me thoroughly throughout my life, with no brothers and sisters to keep me in my place and never having known my father, I say all kinds of impertinent things, Mr Kent. Am I supposed to feel grateful to my grandfather? Because, try as I might, I can find no hint of gratitude within me."
Alex's anger with her vanished and his expression softened. "I apologise if I sounded harsh just now," he said gently. "I should have known better." For the first time she had let her guard slip a little and truth over loyalty to her mother prevailed. He was strangely moved by her words. Anna Preston had lived her life in a tight discipline. The extent and intensity of her mother's unhappiness and bitterness at the death of her husband after just one year of marriage — the man she had loved above all else, including her daughter — had been with her through life. Sadly, its tragic effects were visible on the young face before him, and as a result Anna Preston was seventeen going on seventy.
For an instant Anna thought she saw a shadow of sympathy flit over Mr Kent's face. Before she could be certain it was gone, replaced by a faintly ironic interest. She was normally not the sort of person to go around revealing information about herself, let alone to total strangers. In fact, she would normally cut her own tongue out before revealing how things had been between herself and her mother, but there was something about Alex Kent that drew you into his rather intense personality. Realising she had given too much of herself away and that he'd picked up on it, regretting her outspokenness she lowered her eyes. "I'm sorry. I shouldn't have said that. It's no concern of yours."