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Dublin, six months later
"WE JUST have to meet with Mr Murphy and then it's all over." In the back of the car as they left the graveyard, Maggie took her mother's hand in hers, concerned by her ashen pallor.
Her mother drew in a shaky breath. "Love, I don't think I can sit through it I really don't"
Maggie tightened her hand in comfort as her mother's eyes filled and her mouth trembled.
She turned stricken eyes to her daughter. "I'm not sad Is that terrible? I'm so relieved that he's finally gone; when I think of what I put you through all these years, how I could have"
"Shh, Mum. Don't think about it now. It's over. He'll never harm either of us again. We're free."
Her heart ached at the desolation in her mother's eyes, the lines on her face, the lifeless hair scraped back. She had once been a beautiful, vibrant woman. The reason why Tom Holland had wanted her for himself after her father's untimely death. He'd been pathologically jealous of his cousin.
In those days, as a young widow in Ireland with nothing but the house left to her and a small child, Maggie's mother had been vulnerable. When Tom had promised to look after her if she married him, she had thought she was doing the best thing for her and her daughter. It was only after the wedding that his vicious cruelty had become apparent and, in a notoriously conservative society where divorce hadn't been allowed until relatively recently, her mother had effectively been trapped. Until now.
"Look, you don't have to sit in on the reading of the will; it's going to be a matter of routine anyway. Mr Murphy knows us well enough not to insist on your being there and Tom left everything to you. It's the least he could have done."Maggie's voice couldn't hide its bitter edge.
"Oh, really love, do you think so? If I could just take a rest "
"Of course, everything is going to be fine." Maggie tried to inject upbeat energy into her voice when all she felt was drained beyond belief.
A short time later the car pulled off the main road in the small village outside Dublin and swept through the gates of a large, welcoming country house. Maggie took a deep comforting breath. The first glimpse of the house through the trees that lined the short drive never failed to lift her spirits. It had been their own family homeher father and mother's. It was the one thing her stepfather hadn't got his hands on. A link back to happier days, the memories of which she knew had helped her mother get through the worst times. It was here she and her mother had moved back to six months ago, after that Even now she couldn't bring herself to think of that night. The pain in her heart was still acute, despite her attempts to ignore it, deny it. The awful humiliation was still vivid.
Luckily her mother had listened to her and they'd left London almost immediately. By the time Tom had realised that his plan hadn't worked he'd been too caught up with his business to come after them. And now he was gone for good.
Dead. She brought her mother up to her bedroom and was almost at the door when she called her back.
"What is it, Mum?" Maggie walked over and sat down. Her mother's eyes were suddenly bright and serious. "Promise me you'll never speak of what happened to us what Tom did to us I couldn't bear the shame."
She was used to this recurring plea of her mother's. "Of course not you know I never have; why would I now?"
Her mother grabbed her hand with surprising strength. "Promise me, Margaret."
"I promise."She pressed a kiss to her mother's forehead and left again. It was a promise she wouldn't find hard to keep; she had no intention of talking or thinking about Tom Holland ever again if she could help it. Maggie went back downstairs and heard the sound of a car. The solicitor. After hanging up her coat, she quickly smoothed back her hair, opening the door with a smile as the bell sounded. She had always liked the small man with twinkling eyes. Unlike the rest of Tom Holland's coterie of hangers-on and staff, his local Dublin solicitor had also been her father's solicitor.
She showed the older gentleman into the front room. "I hope you'll excuse my mother; she's not feeling the best."
He turned to face Maggie, "Nothing serious, I hope?"
"No," she quickly assured him, knowing of his genuine concern. "She's just tired and drained from the past few days. But if you need her here"
He put up a hand. "Actually, maybe it's better if she doesn't hear what I have to say." Suddenly he couldn't meet Maggie's eyes and shifted uncomfortably on his feet. A sliver of fear made her stop breathing for a second. It was too good to be true that Tom Holland was gone. She knew it.
"What do you mean?"
"Maggie let's sit down. I'm afraid I've got some bad news." She moved numbly to a chair and watched as the solicitor sat down near a table and put down his briefcase. He didn't take out any papers. She struggled to stay calm, despite his bleak face.
"What what is it?"
He looked up at her finally, his hands stretching out, palms up, empty. "I'm afraid that you and your mother have been left with nothing."
Her heart started to beat normally again, as she relaxed. It wasn't too bad. She and her mother hadn't ever received much from Tom and she had been supporting herself for years since college and was building a modest income from her paintings.
"Well, that's not the end of the world, is it? But but where did it all go?"
They were talking about millions of pounds after all. Mr Murphy sighed; he hated being the bearer of bad news. "It would appear that one of his adversaries finally brought him down, lock stock and barrelthe timing is most unfortunate. A tycoon in the UK that your stepfather attempted to take over some time ago has been steadily buying up stock, taking over his companies and on the day Tom had the heart attack the last of his businesses crumbleda freak coincidence."
That would explain his absence, why he hadn't followed them home, demanded her mother return to London, punished them. Despite the dire news, Maggie couldn't help the spike of satisfaction that rushed through her; she only wished she could have seen his reaction when he had found out.
"Well, there's nothing to be done now; at least we have our house."
The words fell into the space between them and Maggie watched with growing dread as she saw Mr Murphy's eyes flicker away guiltily and his hand went to his collar as if he needed air.
"Mr Murphy, we do have this house, don't we? It's my mother's."
He shook his head slowly, as if he couldn't even bring himself to articulate the words. At Maggie's desperate look he had to. He cleared his throat and it sounded harsh in the silence of the room.
"My dear nearly a year ago in London your stepfather persuaded your mother to sign over this house in his name as collateral. God knows how he persuaded her; maybe she didn't understand what she was doing I'm afraid it was tied up with all of his other assets. It now belongs to"
Just then the sound of a car outside the window stopped his words. Maggie couldn't move; she was in shock. She couldn't even begin to figure how her mother had done such a thing; this house was sacrosanct. Rage and disbelief warred inside her as the information sank in.
Mr Murphy was looking out of the window. "That's him. The head of the corporation. He came to see me personally and insisted on coming here today to see you and your mother. I'm so sorry, but he refused to be dissuaded."
When the doorbell rang and Maggie didn't move, Mr Murphy finally got up to answer it. She was numb, barely aware of the sound of the door opening, footsteps approaching, the deep timbre of a voice answering something the solicitor had said. Maggie looked up and suddenly her world stopped turning. She felt herself standing slowly as if moving through treacle, her limbs sluggish and unwieldy.
Caleb Cameron. Larger than life, his huge frame filling the doorway. He cocked his head slightly and a mocking smile touched his lips. His eyes captured Maggie's and she couldn't look away. They were glacial, moving over her, stripping her. The man who had turned her world upside down that night six months ago was back apparently to turn it upside down again. She fought strenuously against the shocking pull she could feel in every cell as she reacted to his commanding aura. The room seemed to tilt slightly on its axis as she unconsciously sucked in a breath, her need for oxygen necessary but secondary to the shock after shock that she was reeling from.
Unable to tear her eyes away from his in morbid fascination, she didn't notice the solicitor precede Caleb into the room and gesture towards her. "This is Margaret Holland. Maggie, this is Caleb Cameron, he's the man who has taken over all of your stepfather's holdings including this"
Before he could say it, she cut in through bloodless lips, "I know Mr Cameron; we met in London."
She sank back down on to the chair behind her because her legs were trembling so much they wouldn't hold her up any more and looked up, stricken, as Caleb advanced into the room and sat in the chair just vacated by Mr Murphy. an exquisite suit, he still exuded that untamed potent maleness she remembered all too well. The virile essence of the man couldn't be contained or disguised by a mere suit. It had bowled her over the first time she had seen him and was having the same effect now, except this time she had the experience of their explosive night together to make seeing him three thousand times worse. And, even though months had passed in the interim, she could feel a hot tide of colour rise up from her chest as countless familiar disturbing images flooded her head.
Caleb exercised iron-willed self-control as he looked her over dispassionately. But despite that effort he couldn't dismiss the heady rush at seeing her in the flesh again. Her face had paled dramatically on seeing him, almond-shaped green eyes huge in her small oval face, the rich abundant hair pulled back severely. The plain black top and straight black skirt couldn't hide the curves he remembered all too wellcurves she had flaunted for him yet now she looked thinner. Somehow fragile. And a protective instinct took him unawares.
A vivid memory struck him just then of seeing her for the first time, her hair falling in a mass of vibrant red curls down her back, like some vision from a medieval painting. Freckles stood out starkly against the paleness of her smooth skin as he subjected her to an exacting inspection. He noticed with satisfaction that her cheeks flooded with hectic colour. If he hadn't known better six months ago, he could have imagined she wore her heart on her sleeve, at the mercy of every reaction showing on that translucent skin. He could have succumbed to a dangerous fantasy. But he hadn't. Because he had known, almost from the very start, exactly what she was.
Maggie Holland was a mercenary bitch who had tried, with her stepfather, to play him for a fool. Never again.
He could see her throat work as she tried to speak. "You you've taken over everything. "Her voice was faint. She was so transparent
It gave him such pleasure to know that he was pulling the rug of wealth from under her deceitful feet. He brought his glance, which had shifted to take in the room, back to her face.
"Yes, Ms Holland."
The implied insult in his use of her surname was obvious and a part of her shrank back.
"As of now, I own every single business interest of your stepfather's, including this very house. Naturally I declined to take on board his more dubious holdings; the Inland Revenue here and in the UK are currently investigating those and you might find that you're due to receive some hefty tax bills; they have a surprisingly low regard for offshore accounts that haven't been declared."
Maggie stood up, galvanized into action by the explicit threat in his voice. For the first time since she had seen him again, she tore her gaze away and looked at Mr Murphy, who was near the door.
"Is this true? Can it be possible?" The older man just nodded his head miserably. She looked back to Caleb, a wild panic rising up. He was utterly unconcerned, as if watching a fly on its back struggling to right itself.
"But but how is this possible? I mean, how can we not have known?" She feverishly went over everything in her pounding head. Even though they hadn't seen Tom in months how had they somehow missed noticing the dire straits he was leading them to? And how, for the love of God, was it possible that even now he was reaching out from the grave to ruin them as if he hadn't done enough already?
Because he tried to ruin this man in front of you, with your help