Read an Excerpt
'The Metaxis family are waiting for me to die.' Feverish hatred burned in Gladys Stewart's embittered gaze. 'Vulturesthat's what they are!'
'Well, whoever they are they'll have to wait a little longer,' the nurse informed the older woman cheerfully while she checked her blood pressure. 'You have great vitality.'
'You've got no business interrupting a private conversation!' her patient hissed in a tone of pure vitriol, her thin hands clenching on the bedclothes. 'I was addressing my granddaughter. Ophelia where are you? Ophelia?'
A young woman with unusual pale blue eyes was engaged in piling up discarded bed linen. Directing an apologetic glance at the district nurse, she moved forward. Small in stature, she wore a loose sweater and trousers that only hinted at her hourglass figure. Hair the colour of ripe wheat was tied up with a piece of gardening twine. But nothing could hide her beauty.
'I'm here,' she told her grandmother.
As she studied her Gladys Stewart's narrow mouth compressed with furious resentment. 'If you made more effort, you'd have had a husband years ago!' she condemned bitterly. 'Your mother was a complete fool but at least she knew how to make the most of her looks!'
Ophelia, who was single by choice and inclination, thought wryly of her late parent's love affair with the mirror and almost shuddered. She liked comfy clothes and fresh air. 'Unfortunately it didn't do her much good.'
'I always swore I'd make the Metaxis family pay and I have andlisten to meI'm not finished yet!' The claw-like hand that closed in a painful grip round Ophelia's slender wrist forced the younger woman to lean down. 'You justmight have Lysander Metaxis himself knocking on this door!'
Ophelia was noticeably unimpressed by the highly unlikely forecast that a womanising billionaire, notorious for carrying the equivalent of a harem on board his giant pleasure-yacht, would ever seek her out. 'I really don't think so.'
'All you need is this house,' Gladys hissed with wheezing satisfaction in her granddaughter's ear, 'and I promise you it'll make your every hope and dream come true.'
The fierce conviction of that final startling statement pinned Ophelia's attention squarely on her grandmother. The confusion in the younger woman's eyes was replaced by a burgeoning look of hope. 'Are you talking about Molly?' she whispered unevenly.
Well aware that Ophelia was now hanging on her every word, Gladys turned her head away, triumph etched in every line of her bony face. 'That's for me to know and you to wonder. But if you do your duty by me and play your cards right, you won't be disappointed.'
'Finding out where my sister is would be everything I've ever dreamt of,' Ophelia admitted steadily. 'It would mean the world to me.'
A harsh laugh escaped the woman in the bed. 'You always were a sentimental idiot!'
A quiet knock on the door heralded the arrival of the vicar.
'Try and get some rest while you've got the chance,' the nurse urged Ophelia in an undertone.
Ophelia nodded, bundled up the bedding and gave the vicar a welcoming smile. He was a kind man, who made regular visits and met her grandmother's barrage of caustic complaints with forbearance.
'You're wasting your time,' Gladys told the reverend sourly. 'I'm not leaving a penny to that church of yours!'
Ophelia marvelled that her grandmother could still talk as though she were rich when, in fact, she was up to her ears in debt. Of course Gladys Stewart would never admit that embarrassing truth; she was obsessed with money, social position and the keeping up of appearances. Yet Madrigal Court, the moated Elizabethan manor that Gladys Stewart had persuaded her late husband to buy, was crumbling into a pitiful state of disrepair. After decades of neglect the roof was leaking, damp was spreading and most of the remaining grounds had returned to nature. Letting the beautiful old house go to rack and ruin while refusing to sell it back to the Metaxis family was part of her revenge.
From the landing window, Ophelia could see beyond the rambling gardens of the Court. Almost all the surrounding area now belonged to Lysander Metaxis, the Greek shipping magnate. His father had been wealthy, but his son and heir had the Midas touch and he had billions to burn. When it came to splashing around cash nobody could do it better than Lysander Metaxis. Every time a local property came on the market it was snapped up at a price no one else could match. Thirty-odd years ago, the only stake the Metaxis family had had in the neighbourhood was the gatehouse at the foot of the drive. Now the Metaxis estate owned most of the local farms and half the cottages in the village.
Madrigal Court was a little island of independence at the heart of a Metaxis-dominated community and very soon for Gladys Stewart was dyingLysander Metaxis would own the glorious old house as well. There would be no stopping him, Ophelia reflected ruefully. Even if her grandmother did leave her a share of the Court, which was by no means certain, the sheer burden of unpaid bills and death duties would ensure that the house and gardens had to be sold as soon as possible. Ophelia was hoping and praying that, when that time came, Lysander Metaxis would have no objection to her renting the walled garden for her continued use. After all, it was a good distance from the house and enjoyed a separate entrance onto the road.
Having put the bedding in the washing machine, Ophelia pulled on wellington boots and sped outdoors. She rarely managed to sleep during the day and was convinced that even twenty minutes of work in the fresh air raised her energy levels. In comparison to the rest of the grounds, which she had found impossible to maintain alone, the walled garden was an oasis of beauty and order. There, in carefully designed borders, she grew the rare perennials that she intended to make the mainstay of a small business. Although she already had a steady flow of local customers she wasn't yet in a position to hire anyone to work with her.
After half an hour of energetic digging, she made a reluctant return indoors. Discarding her boots, she padded into the atmospheric old kitchen. A range stove installed in the nineteen twenties ensured a comforting background level of warmth and remained the most modern appliance in the room.
'Good afternoon, Ophelia,' Haddock greeted her in the plummy tones at which he excelled.
Afternoon, Haddock,' Ophelia responded.
'Time for tea, time for tea!' Haddock informed her, patrolling his perch.
Ophelia took the hint and fetched a peanut to give the parrot. She was hugely attached to him. He was almost sixty years old.
'Lovely Haddock! Lovely Haddock!' the bird opined.
Knowing his need for affection, Ophelia smoothed his feathered head and cuddled him.
Familiar footsteps sounded in the stone corridor. Pamela Arnold, a woman in her late twenties with short red hair and lively brown eyes, strolled in. 'You definitely need a man to get up close and personal with.'
'No, thanks. I'm not that desperate yet.' Ophelia wasn't joking either for, with the exception of her long-departed grandfather, the men in her life had always been a source of trouble, heartache and disillusionment. Her father had walked out when she was very young. Once he had started a new family with his second wife he had forgotten that Ophelia existed. Her mother had dated men who'd cheated her out of money, beaten her up and betrayed her with other women. And Ophelia's first love had told lies about her that had led to her being horribly bullied at school.
'Oh, no are you feeding us again?' Ophelia groaned, embarrassed at the sight of the other woman settling a casserole dish on the scrubbed pine table. 'I can't let you keep on doing this'
'Why not? You're run off your feet right now,' Pamela pointed out. 'You're also my best friend and, even though I don't agree with the way you're sacrificing yourself, I need to help any way I can.'
Ophelia raised a brow in disagreement. 'I am not sacrificing myself'
'Yes, you are, and you're doing it for a rather unpleasant person. But I'll button my disrespectful lips and say no more.'
'My grandmother helped my mother out financially and gave me a home when I needed one. She didn't have to do either of those things.' Ophelia said nothing more because Gladys Stewart's abrasive manner had always alienated people. A strong woman who had battled her passage out of poverty and defied the rigid British class system to marry a man from a superior background, Gladys had never been the type to turn the other cheek. But ultimately it had taken only one severe disappointment to poison Gladys's grim disposition beyond redemption and virtually destroy Ophelia's more fragile mother, Cathy.
Although it was more than thirty years since the day it had happened, the echoes of anger, bitterness, pain and humiliation had still contrived to leave an indelible mark on Ophelia's life. While she had struggled to keep an open mind, the people most hurt by that calamity had been those she'd loved and depended on. Naturally her family's suffering and bone-deep prejudice had had their effect on her as well. The very name Metaxis had a silent menace that filled Ophelia with a disquiet and antagonism that was foreign to her generous nature.
As Ophelia made coffee she screened a giant yawn.
As if he understood, Haddock whistled a stirring if tuneless rendering of a well-known lullaby.
Momentarily transported back in time, Ophelia tensed. Once, Haddock had sung nursery rhymes to her little sister at bedtime. The memory of Molly's beaming face below her tangle of dark curls upset Ophelia. Although she'd been only eight years old when Molly had been born, she had looked after her because their mother, Cathy, had not been up to the task. But it was now eight years since Ophelia had seen her sister.
'Shush, Haddock,' Pamela scolded, covering her ears from the din.
Offended, the parrot pointedly turned his back on the redhead.
'Haddock is a very clever parrot,' Ophelia appeased the bird in a wobbly voice.
'Haddock is a very clever parrot,' the bird repeated smugly.
'The Metaxis estate is putting up the money to repair the village community hall,' Pamela said. 'I bet it makes them more popular locally than ever.'
'Metaxis boundergood-for-nothing swine!' Haddock screeched out at the highest decibel level, his beady eyes having fired up the instant he heard that name. 'There'll never be a Metaxis at Madrigal Court!'
An anguished groan escaped Pamela. 'Sorry, I forgot and I've set him off now.'
'Dirty rotten rascal! Makes up to one woman, runs off with another! You can't trust a Metaxis!'
'It's not Haddock's fault. People will say inappropriate things in front of him,' Ophelia complained.
'I know I taught him sleazebag and creep because his vocabulary is getting very dated.'
'Haddock!' Ophelia gasped.
Haddock hung his head in mock shame and shuffled on his perch. Ophelia was unimpressed because, like all parrots, Haddock craved attention and loved to entertain his audience.
'Well, I didn't teach him that one,' Pamela said defensively.
Although Ophelia knew who had, she said nothing. Her way of getting through a difficult present was to stay focused on the future. She had revelled in the horticultural course she had completed at a further education college but her responsibilities at home had prevented her from pursuing an independent career. She was now twenty-five years old. The plants she grew in the walled garden had become a lifeline while she had to devote the rest of her attention to looking after a giant crumbling house and caring for a sick elderly relative. In recent times those tasks had been carried out against a stressful background of unsettled bills and an ever-dwindling income. What a shame that the billionaire Lysander Metaxis wouldn't be coming knocking on her door any time soon! She wondered what strange fancies were playing on her grandmother's mind, as the older woman had never been known for her sense of humour.
'I don't like having my time wasted,' Lysander Metaxis informed his most senior London lawyer.
'I have established that, surprising though it may seem, you do appear in Mrs Stewart's will as a beneficiary. I understand that your presence is crucial to the reading of the will and her solicitor has agreed to a date that will be convenient for you.'
Lysander released his breath in a slow soundless hiss. He had no time for mysteries. Why would Gladys Stewart have included him in her will? It made no sense at all.
'Possibly the lady regretted her behaviour towards your family while she was alive and this may be her way of smoothing matters over now that's she gone,' the lawyer proffered, unnerved by his most powerful client's continuing silence. 'Deathbed changes of heart are more common than you might think.'
'I don't require the woman's blessing to buy the place.' Lysander had never met Gladys Stewart. His late father, however, had once described her as a malevolent gold-digging harpy. Certainly, her ongoing hatred had caused his parents,
Aristide and Virginia, a certain amount of angst over the years. Lysander had placed that at the door of his adoptive parents' overactive consciences. After all, what was the big deal? His father had only broken off his engagement to Gladys's daughter, Cathy, to marry Virginia instead. These things happened and normal people learnt to deal with them.
Forty-eight hours later, Lysander's helicopter landed at Madrigal Court. As usual, he did not travel alone. With him was a mini-posse of attentive staff and his most recent bed partner, Anichka, a six-foot-tall Russian blonde who featured on the front cover of no less than two exclusive fashion magazines that month.
'What a beautiful house,' a female aide pronounced in an unexpectedly dreamy voice.
The huge rambling manor was built of mellow brick and adorned with gracious mullioned window bays and a fantastical roofline that was a riot of tall ornate chimneys, gables and turrets. Lysander was unimpressed. History had never held much attraction for him and a dilapidated building surrounded by unkempt gardens offended his partiality for order and discipline. If so many flaws were visible at first glance, they were probably only the tip of the iceberg, Lysander thought grimly, his sensual mouth hardening. Carrying out repairs quickly would be an enormous challenge.
'It's falling apart,' Anichka remarked with distaste, brushing herself free of the rust particles that adhered to her skin when she was unwise enough to rest a hand on the wrought-iron balustrade that edged the stone bridge over the moat.