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Farringdon Hall, Old Leasham
RUDY had just arrived at the door of the sickroom and raised his free hand to knock, when he heard his brother-in-law's low, well-modulated voice, and paused to listen.
"So what exactly is it you want me to do?" Simon was asking.
"I want you to try and trace Maria Bell-Farringdon, my sister," Sir Nigel's voice answered.
Sounding startled, Simon said, "But surely your sister's dead? Didn't she die very young?"
"That was Mara, Maria's twin sister. They were born in 1929I was three at the timeso Maria will be in her mid-seventies by now, if she's still alive "
His curiosity aroused, Rudy stayed where he was, his ear pressed to the door panel.
"The last time I saw her was November 1946. Though she was barely seventeen at the time, she was pregnant and unmarried. Despite a great deal of parental pressure, she refused to name the father, and after a terrible row, during which she was accused of bringing disgrace on the family, she just walked out and vanished without a trace. Our par-ents washed their hands of her, and her name was never again mentioned. It was just as if she had never existed. But in March 1947 she wrote secretly to me, saying she'd given birth to a baby girl. The letter had a London postmarkshe was living in Whitechapelbut no address. I raised as much money as I couldI was still at college thenand waited, hoping she would contact me again, but she didn't, and that was the last time I heard from her. After my parents died I made a couple of attempts to find her, but without success. I should have kept trying, but somehow I let it slide. I sup-pose I thought I was immortal and hadplenty of time The doctor doesn't agree, however. His verdict is that I've three months to live at the most, so it's suddenly become urgent that I find either Maria or her offspring."
"Do you want to tell me why?" Simon asked. "Of course, my boy," Sir Nigel assured his grandson. "It's only right that you should know.
"If you'd like to open my safe, you know the combina-tion, and take out the leather jewel case that's in there "
There was a faint sound of movement, then Sir Nigel continued, "This is why. It's come to be known as the Carlotta Stone. Some time in the early fifteen-hundreds it was given to Carlotta Bell-Farringdon by an Italian noble-man who was madly in love with her. For generations it's been passed down to the eldest of the female line on her eighteenth birthday. Marawho had a heart defectdied as a child, so the diamond should rightfully have gone to Maria, to be passed on to her daughter. Though a lot of years have gone by, it's an injustice that I would like to put right before I die, so I just hope you can find her."
"I'll certainly do my best, but at the moment my hands are full with the American merger, and I'm due in New York tomorrow. However, if you'd like me to concentrate on finding Maria, I'll send someone else over to the States in my place," Simon offered.
"No, no You're needed there. The negotiations are very delicate and I don't want to see them fall down at this stage."
"In that case, so as not to waste any time, I'll hire a private detective to start making enquiries immediately. Of course, it will have to be done with the greatest discretion,' Simon said. "Quite right, my boy. In fact I'd like the whole thing kept under wraps. Not a word to a soul," Sir Nigel warned.
"Not even Lucy?' "Not even Lucy. For one thing, I'd prefer it if Rudy didn't get to know, and for another, I understand one of her friends is a so-called journalist. The last thing I want is for the story to get into the gossip columns. They always blow these things up out of all proportion, and I'd be extremely upset if there was any breath of scandal."
It would serve the autocratic old devil right if there was, Rudy thought vindictively. He'd be only too happy to see Sir Nigel, his precious grandson, and the whole of the Bell-Farringdon family taken down a peg or two.
"In any case it would pay to tread carefully," Simon said, "keep the reason for the search a secret until we're certain we've got the right person."
"You're quite right, of course. The Carlotta Stone is price-less, and I wouldn't want to risk it going to some imposter with an eye to the main chance."
There was a silence, then Simon said thoughtfully, "There's not a lot to go on, and it's quite possible, not to say probable, that Maria changed her name. However, mod-ern technology should make it a great deal easier "
"Good morning, Mr Bradshaw." The nurse's decisive voice made Rudy spin round and almost drop the books he was holding. "Just leaving?"
Recovering himself, he said, "No, as a matter of fact I was just about to knock."
Made uncomfortable by that frosty blue gaze, he added, "I thought Sir Nigel might be asleep, and if he was, I didn't want to disturb him."
"Mr Farringdon came up to see him right after breakfast. I believe he's still there." With that she disappeared into the adjoining room.
Cursing his luck at being caught eavesdropping, Rudy tapped at the door of the sickroom.
"Come in," Sir Nigel called. Trying to give the impression he'd only just that second arrived, Rudy went in breezily.
Sir Nigel, who was sitting in bed propped up by pillows, looked anything but pleased to see him, while Simon gave him a sharp glance from tawny-green eyes, and a cool nod.
Biting back his chagrin with an effort, Rudy returned his brother-in-law's nod.
With an uncomfortable feeling of coming in a poor sec-ond, he always felt threatened by Simon's undoubted good looks and masculinity, his air of power and authority.
Turning to the man in bed, he asked as genially as pos-sible, "How are you today, Sir Nigel?"
"As well as can be expected, thank you.' The old devil was only just civil, Rudy thought petu-lantly. In spite of the fact that he had been married to Sir Nigel's granddaughter for almost three years, he was still shown none of the cordiality the baronet reserved for the other members of his family.
Nursing his grievance, Rudy went on, "Lucy wanted to return these books you lent her, so she asked me to call in on my way up to town."
"How is the dear girl?' "Her progress is good since she's been home.' Clearly making an effort, Sir Nigel asked, "Won't you sit down?"
Never comfortable at the Hall, Rudy said, "Thanks, but I must get on my way. As Simon will tell you, we're up to the neck in it at the bank. Apart from the normal grind there are evening meetings scheduled for the next few weeks. Then I have to face the journey home. It's at times like this I wish I'd never given up my flat."
It was an old and familiar complaint.
Too many nights spent in town had made Lucy suspect him of having another affair, and she had put pressure on him to give up his rented flat.
Proving he had a human side, Simon said, "I have to fly to New York tomorrow, so if you need to stay in town any night during the next two or three weeks you can have the use of my flat while I'm away."
"That would help enormously.' "I'll let you have the keys before I go.' "Thanks. Well, I must be off," Rudy said. "Give Lucy my love," Sir Nigel said. "I will."
His head full of what he'd overheard, Rudy closed the door behind him and hurried down the stairs.
Here he was, having to work for a living, he thought resentfully, while that old devil was talking about giving away a priceless diamond. Probably, if Maria was already dead, to someone he had never even met.
It just wasn't fair.
While he drove up to London, Rudy mulled it over. There must be some way he could turn the situation to his advan-tage
Suppose he could trace Maria and her descendents before Simon got back from the States? That would give him a head start, and provide some interesting, and hopefully lu-crative, options
Failing that, he could kill the proverbial two birds with one stonemake some capital out of it and get a bit of his own back, by selling the story to the Press.
Oomphed up a little, it should be worth quite a few thou-sand. "Aristocratic family " "Veil of secrecy " "Priceless diamond " He could almost see the headlines now. "Dying baronet seeking pregnant heiress who vanished from the ancestral home in 1946 "
Simon, who had glanced at him so sharply, might well suspect the source, but so long as neither he nor Sir Nigel could prove anything
Rudy grinned to himself in anticipation. But though he would like nothing better than to see the pair of them squirm, instinct told him the first option might be the better one, so he'd try that to start with.
Either way, what he had so fortuitously overheard would give him a chance to thumb his nose at the Bell-Farringdon family, none of whom had thought him good enough to marry Lucy
Wall Street, New York
Some ten days later, Simon Farringdon received a report from his private detective which read:
I was able to establish that shortly after she disappeared from home, Maria Bell-Farringdon changed her name to Mary Bell.
Having checked the available records, I discovered that in March 1947, in the district of Whitechapel, a Mary Bell had registered the birth of a daughter, Emily Charlotte, father unknown.
The address had been given as 42 Bold Lane. I kept searching, and discovered that in 1951 the same Mary Bell had married a man named Paul Yancey, who later adopted her daughter.
Emily Yancey married a man named Bolton in 1967; however, the marriage ended in divorce some ten years later. In 1980 Emily had a daughter whose birth was reg-istered as father unknown. Emily died some six months later. The baby, named Charlotte, was adopted by a Mr and Mrs Christie
* * *
"How do I look?" Unusually for her, Charlotte was nervous. The lilac chiffon dress, bought in a hurry during her half-hour lunch break, had looked reasonably sedate in the store. Now at its highest point the asymmetrically cut skirt seemed higher than she recalled, and the plunging neckline a lot lower.
Surveying the lovely, heart-shaped face framed in a cloud of silky dark hair, and the luminous grey eyes, her flatmate answered, "So beautiful it's sickening."
"No, seriously.' "I'm being serious. I'd kill for cheekbones like yours and naturally curly hair, not to mention your ears. I always think nice ears are so sexy."
"There's nothing wrong with your ears," Charlotte said crisply.
"There's nothing right with them. They're seriously big, and the lobes are so long I look like a spaniel. Whereas your ears are small and neat, and you've hardly any lobes to speak of."
"Which is a nuisance. It makes it awkward to wear ear-rings. But to get back to the point. I meant the dress; will it do?" Charlotte asked.
"Do? I can only hope the poor devil hasn't got a weak heart "
The two girls had been flatmates since Charlotte had an-swered the door one evening, almost two years ago, to find a tall, rangy girl with spiky blonde hair and a thin, intelligent face standing there.
"I've just been next door visiting Macy," the newcomer had announced. "She mentioned that you had a two-bedroomed flat and were thinking of getting someone to share."
"I've certainly been considering it," Charlotte had ad-mitted cautiously. Then, liking the look of the girl, "Come on in As you can see, the living-room isn't very big," she went on, as the girl followed her into the pleasant room with its old bow-window. "But the bedrooms aren't bad, there's a reasonable bathroom, and a good-sized kitchen." She opened the various doors as she spoke.
"As far as I'm concerned it's next door to heaven after the crummy bedsit I've been living in for the past six months."
Then, her blue eyes curious, the girl asked, "Why do you want to share? In your place I'd prefer to be on my own."
"I would prefer it," Charlotte admitted honestly. "But I don't have much choice."
"I understand from Macyby the way, we work for the same travel companythat you own the bookshop on the ground floor?"
"All I have is a lease on the premises, and, until sales pick up, finding the rent is proving to be a problem. I need some help," Charlotte said.
"How much help?"