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The Cinderella Inheritance
By Carolyn Zane
Harlequin Enterprises LimitedCopyright © 2003 Harlequin Enterprises Limited
All right reserved.
Chapter OneFrom behind an arrangement of white lilies, Cynthia Noble watched her fianc�, Graham Wingate, dart a covert glance around the room before he sidled up to the legal assistant and began to flirt. The blond bombshell with large bedroom eyes and come-hither smile emitted an animal magnetism that was hard to ignore.
The young legal assistant was rather attractive, as well.
And this randy behavior at his grandfather's funeral wake, no less. Would Graham ever grow up? She dropped her face into her hands and gave her temples a vicious rub. Doubtful, knowing him. His flirtatious antics were part of his charm and one of the many reasons she'd been attracted to Graham in the first place. He was charismatic, smart, hardworking, gorgeous, funny and fun loving.
Everything but faithful.
And that was becoming a bit of a problem.
With aching feet Cynthia moved to the front doors of the Seattle Heights Wingate Manor and continued going through the motions of thanking and bidding farewell to those who'd gathered there to honor Graham's grandfather, Alfred Wingate, millionaire, philanthropist and all-around prince of a guy. Graham's mother, Katherine, something of an easily bruised Southern peach, lay wilted upon an old-fashionedfainting couch in the parlor, just off the grand foyer, too overcome by her father-in-law's recent passing to perform her hostess duties.
So, as Cynthia still considered herself to be in Alfred's employ as his personal assistant until the end of this day, it was up to her to be strong.
She held out her hand to old Mrs. Meier, heir to the Meier peppermint fortune. Or the "mint-mint" as her social circle liked to joke. "I'm so very glad you could make it today, Mrs. M."
"Wouldn't have missed it for the world." Gnarled fingers fumbled with the brooch at her throat. "Alfred Wingate cut quite the dashing figure of a man when he was young. He used to come calling, back before he met Jayne."
"His wife was Elaine," Cynthia gently corrected.
"Elaine. Again, it was lovely to see you."
"Thank you, darlin', but my name is Martha."
Cynthia stretched a patient smile over her teeth as she held the door for Mrs. Meier and her chauffeur. A blustery wind blew in off the shores of Lake Washington, whipping their skirts and hair and sending leaves scudding down the lane. In the distance the Seattle skyline stood in stark contrast against the blackening sky. A Pacific storm was brewing and Cynthia was glad that the staff had banked the fires.
As she bid farewell to the rest of the elite circle of Wingate cronies, she decided that the home fires might not have needed stoking after all. For in her peripheral vision she could see things heating up between Graham and his new "friend." Hand against the wall, he had his quarry cornered, his pearly whites flashing as his low laughter rumbled forth. Her shoulders thrown back, the legal assistant arched against him, all lazy eyes and pouty lips and bulging body parts.
Exhaustion had Cynthia's normally square shoulders flagging a bit.
Thank heavens this was nearly over.
All of it.
For the past month Cynthia had been through the wringer, trying to hold everything together for Alfred's sake. But soon, within the next few hours, in fact, she would be on her own again. Just her against the world.
The thought both excited and frightened her. Cynthia hated being alone. But even more, she hated duplicity. And her engagement to Graham was becoming a sham that simply could not go on. She'd tell him before the day ended. Later they could figure out a way to break the news to his parents. Then they could get on with the business of their separate lives.
She sighed as another peek in his direction told her that Graham would have much less trouble getting back into the swing than she would.
She'd find ways to stay busy. She had school. And her new part-time job. And ... her dog. Pulling her lower lip between her teeth, she bit down and fought off the eternal longing that plagued her, for someone to call her own. A love such as it was rumored her mother and father had shared when they were alive.
At last the remaining guests departed with hugs and pats and murmurs of sympathy that left Cynthia teary and emotional. For in losing Alfred, she had lost not just her employer, but her mentor. Her family.
When the door was shut for the final time, a member of the legal team held up a crystal wine goblet and gave it several taps with a silver knife for the benefit of those who remained by invitation only.
"Ladies and gentlemen, the time has come for us to commence the reading of the will. Will those of you who were asked to stay please join us in the library?"
As the attorney and his staff prepared for the reading, many of Alfred's shirttail relatives and fair-weather friends roamed about the luxurious baronial library, peering at photos and priceless mementos and waxing poetic about the old man. All were hoping to be remembered in the will.
"Alfred was such a wonderful man."
"A patron of the arts."
"A veritable saint."
A frown furrowed Cynthia's brow. Where were all these people when the loving, generous, veritable saint was sick and dying this past year? With the lone exception of herself and Graham's parents, he'd been all but forgotten up here on the hill in this cavernous mansion, visited only when business and social protocol demanded.
She swallowed against the lump in her throat as she moved through the rows of folding chairs set up in the library and found a seat in the back. Graham, red faced and smelling faintly of perfume, joined her and took her hand. As she returned his light squeeze, she suddenly understood that the thing she enjoyed most about her relationship with Graham was his family.
First and foremost, of course, his grandfather Alfred.
Also firmly entrenched in her affections were Graham's slightly offbeat parents, the befuddled Harrison and the fragile Katherine.
Head bowed, Cynthia battled back the tears and could scarcely bear to think about how much she'd miss them all. All, that is, with the lone exception of Graham's older brother, Rick. She had yet to meet this ill-mannered globe-trotter, but if the lack of respect he'd shown Alfred by ignoring his death and subsequent funeral were any indication, she'd pass.
Excerpted from The Cinderella Inheritance by Carolyn Zane Copyright © 2003 by Harlequin Enterprises Limited
Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.