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THE shock silenced him. In the dimly lit room he heard nothing but his thundering heartbeat. And the voices in his head saying, it isn't true. Can't be!
Blake fought the red mist that clouded his brain. Generations of his ancestors must have been born, slept and finally died in the opulent surroundings of this vast bedroom. Yet he doubted that any of them had ever heard such a devastating outburst as this.
You are not the legitimate heir. You are...my love-child. His mother's words spun around his head, destroying his ability to reason. It took a supreme effort of will for him to recover his senses. Seconds more before he realized there was a logical explanation. Her mind must be confused from the intensive course of medication.
Deeply distressed for her and with his concern for her uppermost in his thoughts, he masked his own chaotic feelings and sought to calm her. "I've tired you with our chatting, Mother. I think you should sleep," he advised gently.
Kay Bellamie's eyes blazed with anger, the only living sign in the once-beautiful face that was now a putty colored mask of imminent death.
"Don't treat me as if I'm mad!" she croaked. "I'm perfectly sane. You are not a Bellamie! I want you to know that!"
"Mother!" Blake winced at her insistence, and at the destruction of her lyrical, fluting voice.
"It's the truth! You have no right to the inheritance. Look at yourself!" she flared. "Do you think you have Bellamie blood? Where is your blond hair? Your fat gut?
Your bulbous nose? I know who fathered you. It was my lover, I tell you!"
He couldn't bring himself to humor her. This was too painful and must be stopped."Take it easy," he cautioned. "Perhaps you've been dreaming—"
"No!" Her skeletal hand clutched at his, its bony fingers a series of white claws against his healthily tanned skin. "Do you know why I refused to allow you to be called after a Bellamie ancestor? I broke with tradition because I was desperate to keep something of your father. A name that linked you with him—"
'Blake?" He frowned, his inky brows two uncomprehending angles.
His mother looked at him as if she saw someone else and he felt fear clutch at his stomach with a scouring ferocity. No, he thought in silent horror. Don't let it be true!
"No, I daren't use his name. Blake means dark." For a brief moment her eyes closed and he felt a pang to see the blue pallor of her lids. "You've seen your baby photos," she grated. "You know you were born with masses of raven hair. Like my lover's." A far-away smile lifted her thin lips for a moment. "Dear God, Blake!" she went on vehemently. "I know this is hard but, for your own sake, accept what I'm telling you! My mind is crystal clear. I've carried this secret all your life and I must unburden myself before I die. For the last time, you are not the son of Darcy Bellamie!"
Exhausted, she let her hand fall away to lie limply at her side. Slowly, reluctantly, his gaze flickered in the direction of the oil painting of his father over the baroque mantelpiece. A chill settled deep within his spine and from ice. How many people had commented on the total lack of resemblance?
Every ounce of his strength seemed to leave him. Once again, rational thought had become suspended. Utterly motionless, he sat like a zombie beside her rumpled bed, feeling as if he'd been poleaxed.
What was she saying? Why? his brain screamed. But he held back his raging emotion, crushing it remorselessly as he'd been instructed every day of his childhood until he had become adept at hiding his tempestuous feelings.
Frustration gripped him. It was impossible to know why she was exerting all her meager energy to make such an astonishing claim.
Unless it was true.
Shuddering, he sought denial because acceptance would destroy him. Tenderly he stroked her hot forehead.
"Mother. The drugs you've been prescribed are powerful sedatives and they—"
"I haven't taken any for days. I needed to think. I'm speaking the truth, I swear on my grandson's head," she cried in desperation.
That rocked him. He sucked in a long breath to fill his crumpled lungs. Defiantly his fists clenched. Preposterous—surely? All his life he had been groomed and trained and guided by his parents, governesses, fencing masters, riding instructors and stewards in preparation for his future as the Bellamie heir.
He'd been twenty when his elderly father, Darcy, had died. From that day he'd been catapulted into a position of authority where his decisions affected the lives of many. Consequently, he had made them with great care. After eight years of such unnerving responsibility he had become supremely confident in the role which would be his until he died and his son took over.
Confident...yes. And yet, admittedly, sometimes he felt restless and increasingly resentful of the constant pressures of duty. Occasionally he just longed to be free.
The hairs rose on the back of his neck. Had he inherited that restlessness from his true father? The stolid and conventional Bellamie men had reputedly always been content with their lot of wealth and privilege. Maybe there wasn't a drop of their blood in him!
But of one thing he was certain. He loved every inch of Cranford Hall, every blade of grass on the vast estate—even the handful of estate workers" cottages spilling into the adjoining village of Great Aston.
And now his mother claimed that none of this belonged to him, after all! If this was true she'd just ripped apart the very fabric of his life.
God. He couldn't handle that. He'd spent twenty-eight years living a lie. Pretending to be someone else. When he was just his mother's by-blow. Base born. Illegitimate. A bastard!
A sudden pain made his stomach muscles tighten. He looked at his mother, who loved him, and saw the truth written there in her pleading eyes. She was perfectly lucid, her gaze steady and focused as she fumbled with the gold locket around her neck and opened it.
He swallowed. A photograph. Fearing what he'd see, nevertheless he leant forward to peer at the miniature heart-shaped snapshot.
A young man. Dark-skinned, vital and bursting with life, with black hair that curled defiantly, exactly like his, and laughing black eyes—the mirror of his. Same bone structure. Same fire. Two peas in a pod.
"Your father," she whispered and lovingly stroked the photograph with a shaky finger.
"No!" But he could see it was. And his heart seemed to stop with shock.
"Look at him," she said tenderly. "You and he are so almost abandoned everything for him. But he had nothing—and I'd known poverty only too well. I wanted this for you!" she cried, flinging out a quivering arm to encompass the room and its priceless contents.
Hardly breathing at all, he sank heavily back into the chair. It was as if he'd been cast adrift on the open sea. His father. A whirlwind of emotions rampaged through him: anger, despair and finally a hunger for this unknown father's love, which brought a lump to his throat and the pricking of tears to his haunted eyes.
A limp blue-veined hand lifted from the raw silk coverlet and covered his. "Blake, you know I love you," she said with a heartbreaking tenderness. "I've devoted my life to you. I vowed that the son of my lover must one day inherit Cranford—"
"Inherit? How? You've made my position here impossible!" he cried more harshly than he'd meant.
But he was fighting a maelstrom that seethed inside him and the words had stubbornly stuck in his throat. He didn't want to do the honorable thing and give up Cranford because he wanted to forget this conversation had ever happened. To deny that dark-eyed laughing man. To remain what he was—Blake Bellamie, master of all he surveyed, proud of his heritage.
"Why?" she whimpered.
Impatiently he began to stride about the room, trying to resist the wicked urge to remain silent and to keep his mother's secret. He and his son and Cranford were inextricably linked. They had been his whole life, his entire reason for existing.
Yet the truth hammered at him relentlessly. Searing anguish shredded his guts. Shock and fear of the future weakened the muscles of his legs, turning them to mush. He'd never known such violent feelings.
Staggering a little, he leant heavily against a chinoiserie chest making the Satsuma vases on its racks rattle alarmingly. Sick to the stomach, he knew what he must do. God, he was shaking from that decision! Never in his entire gold-plated life had he felt so ill, so diminished. So... empty and alone.
Bleak-faced, he allowed his hooded black eyes to rest moodily on his panic-stricken mother, a pathetic figure almost devoured by the huge Jacobean four-poster.
Which wasn't his. Nothing was his. Nothing that he'd imagined he'd inherited. Only that morning he'd ridden across his land, spoken to his tenants, walked into the pub and discussed renovations with his builder and carpenter over a pint of local ale. Now everything belonged to someone else. His whole life had been a sham.
And destitute, it seemed, he and his six-year-old son. Throwing his head back, he inwardly groaned. What would he tell Josef? His child, his beloved son, light of his life since his wife had left...
He covered his face with his hands and groaned. But he couldn't hide from the truth. He had to start anew. And find the man who'd sired him.
"My...real father. Where is he?" he said jerkily, appalled by his need.
"Gone. Vanished into thin air." Tears sprang from his mother's pale eyes. "I told him to go, said that I didn't love him even though I would have laid down my life for him, I loved him so much. Still do..."
In deep shock, he stared at the desolation expressed in her face. Never had he known his mother so fervent. Within that cool, emotionless exterior there had been a passionate woman who had sacrificed everything for him. Including her own happiness
And, rattled by his own emotional reaction, he was beginning to understand. All his life she'd drummed it into his head that showing passion was unseemly for a gentleman.
Every excessive display of his had been relentlessly crushed until he'd realized that his innocent, natural responses of joy and sorrow and anger weren't acceptable. Whenever he'd lost his temper or had become overexuberant he'd been punished severely.
A bitter anger swept through him. Because she'd wanted him to behave like a Bellamie he'd been denied his own personality!
There had been times when he'd felt like exploding from suppressed fire and energy within him but had been forced to control himself. That was when he rode till the wind tore at him, the speed and ferocity of his riding eas
So he had inherited passion and a lust for life. What else? The restlessness, the urge to feel the wind on his face, his hatred of being cooped up indoors for hours on end?
Bitterly, he realized that it didn't matter. He must leave Cranford and start a new life. It was the right thing to do. He blanched at the burden she had placed on him and suddenly knew the name of his father.
"He was called Josef, wasn't he?" he shot and at her soft smile of acknowledgement he felt his chest tighten.
The same name as his own son. Chosen by his mother who'd claimed it had been the name of her Hungarian grandfather.
Feeling light-headed, he realized he'd been holding his breath. Letting it out in a despairing exhalation, he clung to the remnants of his self-respect. Dying inside, every word an effort, he said tightly, "I have to find the true heir. The legitimate descendant—"
"No! Not Giles. Not your father's cousin!" she wailed. "If he's the rightful heir then I am duty bound to find one because they didn't want to emerge at all.
She bit her lip then, looking desperate, she blurted out wildly, "And inflict hell on everyone here? Giles is..." She gulped, her voice wavering. "He's...evil, Blake!" It seemed she was struggling for words to convince him, to change the doubting frown on his face. "Giles was a drunk! You can't turn Cranford over to him!" she sobbed. "You have your own son to think of now!" Her hands raked at him in desperation. "I beg you, my darling! Don't let me die knowing that my whole life, my sacrifice, has been in vain!"
His heart twisted, loving her so much that it hurt him deeply to see her distress. He listened to her hesitant and stumbling description of Giles's habits. And was sickened by the man's degrading behavior.
Stroking his mother's deeply lined forehead, he managed to soothe her. Gave her a pill. Waited till she slept. impossible weight, he crossed to the full length window, seeing everything with different eyes. A stranger's eyes.
Not his. Not his. He swayed, crushed by the cruel pain of knowing.
What should he do? The right thing? Or what would be best for the majority of people? Including himself. He groaned. How could he be objective about this?
Josef appeared. Solemnly sitting on his new pony, chatting happily to Susie, the groom. Love swelled in his heart. And, when Blake swept his dark and troubled gaze over the parkland and wooded hills beyond, he felt a visceral tug of belonging that could never be expunged from his system.
Giles was an evil man. The estate, the business, the tenants—all would suffer in his hands. Blake knew this was no longer a decision based on his own desires but the cold, hard fact that Giles would go through the Bellamie millions like a knife through butter.
He had no choice. For the sake of everyone who depended on him he would keep the secret.
Even so, his life would never be the same. Already he felt a fraud. Shadows had already begun to darken his life, to weigh down his heart. He wondered with a bleak fury if he could ever be truly happy again.